No pope ever took the show on the road like John Paul II.
Within hours of his election, this cheerful, energetic, yet deeply mystical and pious man was holding an international news conference in several languages, sending Vatican bureaucrats scurrying in a panic to find out what he was saying.
In short order, he began fulfilling Jesus' "great commission" to spread the Gospel worldwide by launching an unprecedented series of evangelical pilgrimages that by the quarter-century mark of his pontificate had taken him to 102 countries.
Almost single-handedly, it seemed, John Paul II wrenched the papacy from near-medieval somnolence into the modern world of jet planes, Jumbotrons and electronic mass media.
The crowds he drew were enormous -- a gathering of more than 5 million in Manila may have been the largest in history -- and people embraced him in a very intense, immediate, intimate way.
"It was wild," Ysella Fulton-Slavin, a college English instructor, recalled of the pope's 1987 visit to Detroit. "We were in this football stadium, they were selling Pope-Corn and Pope-on-a-Rope and I'm thinking, 'This is crazy.' But all of a sudden he came out in his little car, and it was amazing the impact he had. . . . People were screaming and shouting. You could feel the power that he had -- it was like the Holy Spirit."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assisted on many of John Paul's trips. "People would be cheering, chanting 'Viva il Papa!' " she said. "I was in churches with him where people were standing in the pews. In Mile High Stadium in Denver he went to the security fence, working the crowd, and the mob surged forward, and the security people were sweating bullets."
In Cuba in January 1998, Castro wore a suit and tie to the papal Mass, and a million Cubans broke into the pope's homily with chants of "Libertad! Libertad!" That Christmas, in honor of the pope's upcoming visit, people had been allowed to celebrate publicly for the first time since 1969 -- as they still can today.
In Ireland in 1979, after John Paul told a crowd of 300,000 that "love always brings victory," the cheering and singing lasted nearly a half hour.
In John Paul II, the world saw a figure -- former day laborer, survivor of Nazi and communist tyrannies, a poet and onetime actor and playwright, an athlete who skied and climbed mountains and had a swimming pool installed in the papal summer residence -- whom it could relate to and admire, yet a man transformed by faith into something more.
Indeed, although this pope enjoyed rock star status, he played to his crowds with a grace, passion and gentle humor that was at once humble and uplifting.
Deplaning in country after country, John Paul knelt and kissed the ground. He donned local hats and robes around the world, often speaking to people in their own languages.
In New York, when Mayor Ed Koch greeted him with, "Your Holiness, I am the mayor," the pope replied, "I shall try to be a good citizen." Then, in Madison Square Garden, thousands of youngsters started shouting in a rhythmic chant, "John Paul II, we love you!" after the pope had been driven around the arena in a converted Ford Bronco while a high school band played the themes from "Rocky" and "Battlestar Galactica."
The pope began imitating a drummer and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd. As the chanting rocked the roof, he grabbed a microphone and, shaking with laughter, chanted back: "Woo-hoo-woo; John Paul II, he loves you!"
There'd never been anything like it in the history of the papacy.
Indeed, rejecting the managerial approach of many pontiffs, John Paul set an evangelical tone, at once high-spirited and down-to-earth, that was reminiscent of Peter himself, the rambunctious apostle who became the first pope 2,000 years ago.
If there's an innate yearning for holiness in humankind, a need to cling to a higher hope, John Paul II -- as spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, one-sixth of the human race -- hit that sweet spot dead center.
Within a year of coming to the chair of Peter, the former Karol Wojtyla, who had been archbishop of Krakow, was preaching his message of human dignity and freedom in his native Poland -- in the very heart of communism.
The government hadn't wanted him but couldn't quite say no in the spotlight of international publicity. With a million Poles jammed into Warsaw's Victory Square and nearby streets, John Paul praised the martyred St. Stanislaw's stand against state tyranny 900 years earlier.
In the middle of his homily, the vast crowd began chanting: "We want God, we want God."
A decade later, Poland was free, and the Soviet empire had collapsed.
The pope's extraordinary outreach wasn't limited to Catholics. He sought reconciliation with Jews, asking God's forgiveness for the sins of the church against Christianity's "elder brothers." He reached out to Muslims and Protestants, to the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, indeed to "all people of good will" -- as he said on the Mall in Washington in 1979 -- "in common dedication for the defense of life in its fullness and for the promotion of all human rights."
He forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot him in 1981, visiting him in jail.
He even apologized for the church's persecution of Galileo in the 17th century. In fact, Luigi Accattoli, the Vatican correspondent for an Italian newspaper, found that John Paul had publicly admitted church culpability 94 times, in matters ranging from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the treatment of women.
He was enormously controversial. From the start, he stuck to a strict theological conservatism, attacking abortion and what he called the "culture of death" in general. He was unpopular among many American Catholics who favor contraception, the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry. He would have none of it.
It was widely felt he didn't respond vigorously to revelations of priestly sexual abuse of children, though he condemned it, calling America's cardinals to the Vatican to admonish them.
Whenever he touched someone's life personally, the effect was profound.
Lech Walesa, who became Poland's president after leading the Solidarity labor movement's struggle against the communist government, met with the pope and kept his picture pinned to his shirt through those dangerous times.