Pope John Paul II not only was an unwavering defender of the sanctity of life and the church's patriarchal hierarchy but also a crusader for the world's poor, the disabled and the oppressed.
Those of us who might have hoped for the church that guides 1 billion of the world's people to allow priests to marry or allow women as priests saw only baby steps in that direction in the past quarter-century -- with women given a greater role in Mass, for instance, and married men allowed to turn to the priesthood in limited cases. Nor would the pope accept artificial birth control as a personal matter and a social policy to help improve the lot of the poor.
Still, in many ways the pope has been a liberal in challenging the status quo, warning about capitalism's pitfalls, praising universal health care and challenging kings, prime ministers and presidents to make peace, not war. (Most recently, he publicly disagreed with George W. Bush on the war in Iraq.)
El papa, as the Holy Father of the Catholic Church is called in Spanish, never wavered on the principles of love and dignity he believed should guide humankind. His astounding life explained how he would advance conservative Catholic principles while tempering the "liberation" theology that took hold in poor countries, particularly in Latin America.
An everyday man who grew up to be the first pope in some five centuries not to come from Italy, John Paul II would become the Pilgrim Pope, kissing the ground of 129 countries and expanding Catholicism in Africa and some of the poorest regions of the globe.
Having endured Nazi occupation of his beloved Poland, the pope knew how to play tough politics, too. In his early years as pope, he stood up to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, giving Poles and other people living behind the Iron Curtain hope to push for reforms until communism collapsed. Years later, when he visited Cuba in 1997, he called on the island's regime to "open" to the world and for the United States to end its embargo.
Pope John Paul II never played favorites. He remained consistent not only in church theology about God being the only acceptable arbiter of life's end -- against both abortion and the death penalty -- but also uncompromising in following Christ's call for forgiveness of those who seek it. He taught by example. He would forgive the man who attempted to kill him, pray with him and call for his life to be spared.
His death marks the end of an extraordinary era.
This is the first pope who would step inside a synagogue. The first pope to visit a mosque. The first pope to apologize for the old church's role in anti-Semitism. The first pope to speak out against apartheid. The first pope to marry creationism with evolution, saying that faith in God and belief in science can coexist. Even the first pope to welcome break-dancers to the Vatican.
Above all, this pope sought to show the world that there is dignity and love in suffering -- for many, the true mystery of faith.