CRAWFORD, Tex., April 8 -- President Bush said Friday that attending Pope John Paul II's emotional funeral strengthened his belief in Christianity, in a living God and in how religious faith is a lifelong journey, not a respite.
"I knew the ceremony today would be majestic, but I didn't realize how moved I would be by the service itself," said Bush, a Protestant who attends a Methodist church. "Today's ceremony, I bet you, for millions of people, was a reaffirmation . . . and a way to make sure doubts don't seep into your soul."
The president, discussing his faith in greater detail than usual, said: "There is no doubt in my mind there is a living God. And no doubt in my mind that Lord, Christ, was sent by the Almighty. No doubt in my mind about that."
In an interview with reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Texas from Rome, an unusually introspective Bush called the funeral ceremony one of the "highlights of my presidency." He differed sharply with former president Bill Clinton's view that John Paul left behind a "mixed legacy."
"I think John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace, compassion and a strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone," Bush said, later asking reporters to amend his remarks to insert "excellent" to describe the legacy.
John Paul, who died a week ago, successfully encouraged the largely peaceful revolts against Soviet rule in his native Poland and across Eastern Europe. He traveled widely, proclaimed more saints than any of his predecessors, and issued numerous encyclicals and other teaching documents. He also attacked what he considered moral relativism inside and outside the church and held a rigid line against contraception, abortion, cloning and same-sex marriage.
On the flight to Rome, Clinton accompanied Bush and told reporters that John Paul "may have a mixed legacy." The former president said: "There will be debates about him. But on balance, he was a man of God, he was a consistent person."
Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to attend a pope's funeral, led a delegation that included Clinton, former president George H.W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. President Bush's presence at perhaps the largest funeral in history -- and his deeply personal remarks about God and faith afterward -- illustrate how America's views of religious expressions and its role in politics have changed over the years.
The president assumed a low profile during the three-day visit to Rome but invited the small group of pool reporters traveling with him to the front of Air Force One to talk about the pope, religious faith and more worldly matters such as Social Security, energy policy and Monday's scheduled meeting here with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The White House pool is a rotating group of reporters representing the largest media outlets who travel with the president when the full Washington press corps does not accompany him.
One day after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said that federal judges have "run amok" and should be reined in, Bush took a more measured approach, drawing praise from some of his harshest Democratic critics.
"I believe in an independent judiciary," he said. "I believe in proper checks and balances. And we'll continue to put judges on the bench who strictly and faithfully interpret the Constitution."
Bush said he is aware of widely shared concerns about his proposal to restructure Social Security, but he vowed to continue pressuring Congress to pass legislation this year to create private retirement accounts.
Bush was most expansive and reflective when discussing the pope and religion.
The president and John Paul met three times, and Bush has told aides he deeply admired the pontiff's unshakable faith and beliefs, even when their views collided. The pope was an unwavering critic of Bush's support for the death penalty and of the invasion of Iraq, but they shared a passion for promoting religious freedom, liberty and what both called a "culture of life."
"My relationship with John Paul II was a very good relationship," Bush said, noting how in their final meeting, on June 4, 2004, the pontiff "made his points to me with his eyes." In that meeting, Bush said the pope spoke mainly through written communications.
The president, like the pope, has been criticized by some for stubbornly clinging to conservative or traditional values, and he made clear he admired John Paul for his unbreakable stands on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. "Tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock," Bush said.
The pope's dedication to the church and mankind until his dying days was an "example of Christ's influence in a person's life" and was inspirational. "A lot of Christians gain great strength and confidence from seeing His Holiness in the last stages of life," Bush said.
At times using language familiar to Evangelicals, including talking in some detail about faith as a spiritual "walk" with Christ, the president said viewing the pope's body made him feel "much more in touch with the spirit."
"I think a walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature," he said. "And you constantly confront, you know, questions. My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you've got to constantly stay in touch with the word of God in order to help you on the walk.
"But the Lord works in mysterious ways," he added, "and during all our life's journeys we're enabled to see the Lord at work if our eyes are open and our hearts are open."