Truly an era has come to an end with the death of John Paul II. He was a towering religious figure and a pivotal political force in the 20th century, having lived under two of that time’s greatest evils – fascism and communism.

He was instrumental in the fall of the Iron Curtain, driven by the conviction that one day his native Poland would be free. One by one the great anti-communist warriors is passing from us.

As a young man, Karol Wojtyla was a considerable athlete and even as pope continued to ski. That toughness was evident in his final, tenacious hours; his ability to rebound from a near-fatal assassination attempt in 1981; and his long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

He fought to carry out his priestly duties until the last.

John Paul was in many ways an accidental pope. His predecessor, John Paul I, died in 1978 after a reign of only 33 days, throwing the College of Cardinals into confusion. Cardinal Wojtyla was selected as a compromise candidate after eight ballots, the first non-Italian to head the Holy See in 456 years.

It is a safe guess that the cardinals were surprised, even stunned, by the nature of the man they had chosen to lead them. John Paul was a fabulous linguist and nonstop traveler, blessing multitudes from his signature “popemobile.”

He had strong, traditional, orthodox views and put a halt to what he saw as a liberal drift within the church. He held strict views on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, women priests and married male priests. These topics were not open for discussion.

While John Paul was leader of the world’s billion-plus Roman Catholics, the mass grieving leading up to his death showed that much of the non-Catholic world also looked to him. The pope made no distinctions in his blessings.

A pope may seem singular – there is only one pontiff – but he is also part of a long succession – the 264 popes going back to St. Peter. John Paul is now part of that apostolic lineage and he becomes part of a history he did so much to make.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,