He had brought to the forefront of Catholic worship not just ritual and liturgy, but also that same spirit of the Gospel's love that I had been taught in the church of my Southern childhood. Pope John Paul centered the church on the very essence of its being -- the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
As a youngster, I had not sensed the same vibrations from the papacy of Paul VI. He seemed to me mostly stern and regal.
I think those who read his messages and remember his style would agree that while his intentions were pure, Pope Paul seemed mired in the bureaucratic and philosophical details of the newly revamped Vatican policies of that time.
It's true that many of those policies and doctrines were unhesitatingly adopted and carried forth by Pope John Paul -- including an unflinching opposition to birth control, abortion and women priests. These doctrines remain contentious ones. They alienate important segments of the faithful, especially young American women.
Still, U.S. Catholics continue to attend mass in substantial numbers -- certainly more than in Europe. I believe a big reason is the Church's gravitation toward the basic core teachings of the New Testament.
It would have seemed almost bizarre 30 years ago for an evangelist like Graham to have penned a glowing introduction about the pope. As recently as 1960, John Kennedy's Catholicism was a major issue in presidential politics.
The positive change since then can't be ascribed only to the impact John Paul II had on geopolitical and other grand affairs.
Instead, it is largely because -- like Preacher Jim, Monsignor Dillon and Billy Graham -- Pope John Paul II was in words and deeds a true evangelist. And that's why so many people of so many faiths are touched by his passing.