NEW YORK – A whole generation of adults has grown up knowing only one pope.
As the world says goodbye to Pope John Paul II (search) — the third-longest-serving pontiff ever and, at 58, the youngest pope elected in the 20th century — Generation Y and half of Generation X are bidding farewell to the only Holy Father they have ever known.
The world is a drastically different place than it was in 1978, when the young and energetic Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (search) took the name John Paul II and assumed the role of world leader.
The Vatican announced the pontiff's death on Saturday by e-mail. Twenty-six and a half years ago, when John Paul began his papacy, the concept of the Internet was nothing but a distant dream.
He has often been referred to as the pope of the young people — a generation that now finds itself struggling to envision a world without the pontiff they've known their whole lives.
Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous (search) said the loss of the pope would be felt hardest by those who had grown up during his leadership of the church.
"Young people will acutely feel it because he is the only pope that they have ever known," he said.
"John Paul held his hand to us young people," said 21-year-old Alessio Bussolotti, who drove to Rome on Sunday morning with his fellow Boy Scouts from the Italian city of Ancona. "Now we have to give him ours."
Thousands of young people flocked to St. Peter's Square when the pope was in his final hours. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls (search) said aides told the pontiff that they were there.
"In fact, he seemed to be referring to them when, in his words, and repeated several times, he seemed to have said the following sentence: 'I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you,'" Navarro-Valls said.
Stephanie Czastkiewicz, 13, wanted to meet John Paul so badly during a family trip to Rome in 2003 that she crawled under a fence, dressed in a Polish dancing costume and pretended to be part of a dance troupe that was there to see the pontiff.
"I just really wanted to see him," she told FOX News. "I felt like I was with one of the greatest people in the world. He is definitely a saint and will become one."
The pope blessed her, oblivious to her small deceit. Stephanie calls the moment the highlight of her life.
She said John Paul had a special connection with young people "because he just wanted to reach out to everybody. He was doing everything for the best of everyone else."
Brian Zurliene, who was "overcome with joy" when he first saw the pope at the age of 14 at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, said John Paul had a special understanding that young people were the lifeblood of the church.
"His energy for the young people of the world and his understanding that the youth is the future of the Catholic Church, without us it would fall apart, was what drew many to him," he said.
"He appealed to many, many young people in the world," Zurliene said. "His spirit uplifted all of us ... I know of probably 100 people that came to the faith just because of him."
Now and Then
The world John Paul faced at the start of his papacy was one in which the Cold War dominated the globe, non-European voices in the church were weak and unfocused and dialogue with other faiths was left to second-tier envoys.
Today, the top priorities facing the next pope reflect 26 years of profound change: the rising influence of African and Latin American clergy, greater pressure to allow women into the clergy and to let priests marry, and hopes for Vatican leadership in critical outreach between the West and the growing Muslim world.
"The next pope must deal with this in the same way that John Paul II used his authority to help bring down the Berlin Wall," said John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "[John Paul] brought the papacy onto the geopolitical stage. It cannot retreat."
The inspiration John Paul provided as pope played a large part in the changed world the church now faces. He is credited with helping to tear down communism, one of the greatest threats the church faced at the outset of his papacy.
Lech Walesa (search), founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in Poland in 1989-90, recalled the power of John Paul's visit to Warsaw in 1979. It was the first to his homeland after becoming pope a year earlier, and he ended Mass with a prayer for the Holy Spirit to "renew the face of the Earth," words that became a rallying cry.
"We know what the pope has achieved. Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing," Walesa told The Associated Press on Friday. "More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organize 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations.
"Earlier we tried, I tried, and we couldn't do it. These are facts. Of course, communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way. He was a gift from the heavens to us."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.