John Meehan struggles to describe what he's felt as he and his fellow students at Catholic University of America (search) have watched the steady demise of Pope John Paul I (search)I, catching news between classes on the Internet and on television.

"Sad is the first word that comes to mind," says Meehan, a 22-year-old English major who's also a student minister on his Washington, D.C. campus. "But it's also strange.

"For most of us, this is the only pope we've known."

His generation of young Roman Catholics, whether they have supported or disagreed with some of the pontiff's staunch views, have been having a tough time imagining their church without the leader who guided them for 26 years — one of the longest papal reigns ever.

"For someone my age, having someone that strong and that wise as a leader my whole life, it's going to be a big change," says Sean Patrick Malloy (search), 21-year-old student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania who's studying elementary and special education.

Indeed, many young Catholics were not yet born the last time officials at the Vatican closed the shutters, a sign that the pope has died. And if they know much about it at all, they have only read or heard about the complicated process of choosing a predecessor.

"I was shocked at how old-fashioned the process still is — the puff of smoke indicating a new leader has been chosen," says Allison Nadelhaft, a 26-year-old Roman Catholic from Silver Spring, Md.

Now, though her personal views haven't always coincided with the pope's, she says she will remember John Paul, more than anything, as a uniting force.

"There are so many different types of people who are Catholic — some people are very religious; others are Christmas and Easter Catholics," says Nadelhaft, who works for a professional organization for social workers in Washington, D.C. "His direction and his guidance and his vision has brought all different groups of Catholics together."

Sandra Ramirez, a 17-year-old in El Paso, Texas, describes him as role model who never backed down.

"He is so steadfast in his religion. He's a great man of faith — that's what everyone is saying. You just have to have respect for that," says Ramirez, who does anti-abortion work at her high school. "I'm hoping we get another pope who's like him, who stays true to the teachings of the church, even if they're unpopular."

Ramirez also hopes John Paul's successor will carry on with his tradition of reaching out to young people. The pope was, for instance, a big supporter of the annual World Youth Day that brought thousands of young Roman Catholics from many different countries together.

John Giudicessi, a 22-year-old pre-med student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., agrees that John Paul "was one of the greatest international leaders you could find." He points to the pope's influence on the fall of communism in eastern Europe as one of his big accomplishments.

But he is among a number of young Roman Catholics who say that, despite the pope's attempts to connect with his generation, he's not sure the pope — or others in the church — always accomplished that.

Giudicessi, who attended Roman Catholic schools before going to college, hopes the next pope will set a more accepting tone on issues such as homosexuality and on women taking leadership roles in the church.

"The church is going to have to adapt to survive," he says. "A lot of us feel that the Catholic church is a little bit behind the times."

Margaret Lero, a student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, agrees. She calls John Paul "a major figure in my life." But she also wonders whether his more traditional stances on such issues as birth control and women's leadership roles were more suited to her parents' generation.

"Sometimes, it's hard for us to even relate," says Lero, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering major. Until she came to Notre Dame, she adds, it was "rare that I've come across a priest who's able to directly talk to people of our age."

Some young people also have expressed disappointment with the way the Vatican handled the church's sex abuse scandal during the John Paul's papacy.

But Kristen McGuire, a 28-year-old Roman Catholic from Wethersfield, Conn., says she hopes history — and her generation — will remember John Paul in a positive light.

"I hope people will remember the pope for all the good he did in this world. It's easy to focus on the controversial things he said, his misjudgments, conservative stance on social issues," says McGuire, who works as a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization. "But I hope he will be remembered for more than that — a kind, gentle man, the dark horse of papal candidates."