The last image I saw of him was at the window of his balcony, gallanty waving his branch to the jubilant crowd on Palm Sunday of 2005. He had just returned home from the hospital after another bout with illness. Along with countless others, I hoped he would pull through, but in less than a week we were once again in vigil as he fell prey to another infection.
Somehow I knew he would go on the 2nd of April. It was a Saturday, you see, and the First Saturday of the month at that. He loved Our Lady dearly, and it seemed right that he should depart on the day of the month dedicated to her. And so he did.
As the tributes started pouring in, we saw glimpses of his earlier life. As a young student in Poland, then as priest and then bishop and then Pope. He had wanted to become an actor but found his vocation after two mishaps. Yet priestly duties did not keep him from an active life.
He entered his papacy in the prime of his life, a vibrant man of fifty-eight. His spoke clearly, firmly, with a fiery passion unseen in his predecessors. When he touched down from his many flights, he would kiss the ground, at once a gesture of humility and thankfulness and a papal blessing.
I was eight years old when he became pope. At the time I wondered what the hoopla was all about. My irreligion at that time was simply a reflection of the times. The world was divided between East and West, between Communism and Democracy. We sacrificed our liberties and our human dignity in the altar of the Cold War. And elsewhere: hedonism. From the "Me" Generation of the 70's to the "Gimme" Generation of the 80's.
In the midst of all this, he spoke with unwavering clarity and conviction in the name of Justice, Human Dignity, and Faith. Oh, it took years, but in a little over a decade the unthinkable happened: the Berlin Wall fell and Communism collapsed. Little by little, the petty dictatorships propped up by the superpowers began to crumble.
Far from being a political player, he was a man of prayer. He showed us that a life of prayer was not incompatible with a life in the world, that our Faith did not have to be confined in some dark and dusty corner of the Church. We could be active in the world and yet remain prayerful...because we needed to be. And he put forward several examples, canonizing more saints than all other popes before him.
Above all, he spoke to us, the young people, and gave voice and direction to our meandering hopes and erstwhile frustrations. He did not pander to us, for his message was uncompromising. But that was what we needed: a guiding light through all this confusion. Small wonder we flocked to him; for he was our kindred spirit and spoke our aspirations though we hardly knew them.
And though he passes from this world, his spirit and his message lives on. I will remember him with great affection.
Note: Pope John Paul II's apostolic letters, encyclicals, homilies and other writings are available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/.