Pope John Paul II was a man of his time, ascending to the papacy at a moment of profound change in the world.
His teachings were simple: the importance of faith and respect for human life. He battled totalitarianism with kindness and humility and an appeal to those who yearned for freedom: be not afraid.
"He was a politician in effect, but not in intent," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who knew the pope well and met with him on numerous occasions. The two sons of Poland first met during a lecture at Harvard University, long before one became the White House National Security Advisor [under former President Carter], and the other the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
They rose to those positions in the late 1970s, as Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe, were on the cusp of change. Mr. Brzezinski told the CBS television program, Face the Nation, that as the pope toured his homeland, and spoke to the region, his depth of conviction stood in stark contrast to the spiritual emptiness of communism. "And he stripped communism of all its pretensions, and revealed it for what it was. That is why, when he went behind the Iron Curtain, he didn't preach politics, but he got an enormous political effect," he said.
Millions of Poles turned out to greet the pope when he made his first return trip to his native land in June 1979. They acted independently of the officially atheist communist government, and some say the pope's presence facilitated the growth of the Solidarity labor movement.
Zbigniew Brzezinski said the pontiff was convinced that communism would fall in Eastern Europe, even when the Soviet-backed government in Poland declared martial law in December 1981.
Earlier that year, a Turkish gunman tried to kill the pope. Mr. Brzezinski said he personally believes the Soviets were involved in the shooting and tried to hide their connection through an intricate chain that wove through Bulgaria and what was then East Germany. He was asked if the pope thought there might be a link. "Indirectly, I have to say yes. I don't think he ever explicitly stated that directly. But I think from the conversations I had, yes," he said.
Two years after the shooting, the pope visited the gunman's prison cell and forgave him.
Pope John Paul has also been hailed for his efforts to confront the church's failings and to reach out to other faiths. Elie Weisel, the Nobel-prize winning chronicler of the Nazi holocaust, is a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp near Krakow. During an appearance on CNN's Late Edition, he noted that, as a young man in his native Poland, the pope opposed Nazism, and as pontiff he prayed in the ruins of Auschwitz. "He is the one, who, for the first time, went to a synagogue in Rome. He had a commemoration for the Holocaust in the Vatican, and he went to Jerusalem. He spoke against anti-Semitism and racism. He was a great man," he said.
Pope John Paul went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in March 2000. His message was one that marked his entire papacy: a spiritual message of tolerance and peace.