Unlike many of my generation, during his pontifcate Blessed John Paul II was not "my" pope. I love and respect his memory, ask for his intercession often, and am thankful every day for how he led the Church. But I didn't become Catholic until 2007, so while I was vaguely aware of John Paul II's existence, as a Protestant I never thought of him.
The days following his death in 2005, and especially the day of his funeral, I remember flipping through channels in my dorm room and repeatedly stopping at news coverage of what was happening in Rome. I didn't care at all, really, but somehow I felt a tug in my heart; a fascination that millions of people, many of them my age, flocked to Rome to stand in St. Peter's Square for the funeral of a man they didn't know. But they did know him, it seemed, and as I talk to my friends and peers who remember his passing, he was their pope; the only one they'd ever known. He was their true spiritual father, even from thousands of miles away. As Archbishop Dolan wrote so eloquently this week, so many young, especially those called to the priesthood, saw in John Paul a man so ordinary and yet a man set apart.
Later as I came closer to entering the Church and the months thereafter I became a voracious consumer of things John Paul had written and said and done. The very title of this blog is taken from a quote of his. I devoured George Weigel's Witness to Hope and Richard John Neuhaus' Catholic Matters. As I fell more and more deeply in love with Jesus, especially because of Mary and the rosary, I developed a new appreciation for John Paul's leadership and service. I loved reading his letters about women, Mary, artists, life, the dignity of work, the Holy Eucharist, and priesthood. He wrote with clarity and precision, love and truth. Posthumously, then, he became my pope. I have more pictures of him in my apartment than any other [almost-]saint (except Mary). I ask his intercession for my students as they embark on their Theology of the Body for Teens. I talk about him all the time to my students. If blessed with marriage and children someday, I plan to name one of my sons John Paul. I try to make his motto (Totus tuus Maria) true in my own life too. And I see his legacy springing up all around me: a generation of the young and orthodox who fully embrace the fullness of Truth in our faith, knowing the world will hate us for it, but who take comfort in the first words he spoke to us as Holy Father: Be not afraid!
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.