The rise of totalitarianism and its implications for the church today have turned my thoughts back to one of my spiritual hero’s of the faith. I was and am an unabashed fan of Pope John Paul II in his life and his in death (2005). Unfortunately, those accolades of a Roman Catholic pontiff might sound strange coming from a Presbyterian-raised, evangelically-trained, Protestant Bible-church pastor who wouldn’t know holy water from Canada Dry and who thinks a biretta is a type of handgun, not hat.
The disconnect is too bad. I am aware that a certain rift occurred between Protestants and Catholics about 500 years ago, but why both sides can’t still appreciate the good in each other and cooperate where possible in building the Kingdom of our common Lord Jesus Christ is beyond me. I don’t think any other figure in my lifetime galvanizes the irony of such theological pettiness between Protestants and Catholics more than John Paul II. In my opinion, He was a great man whom all Christians (pro or con Martin Luther) should admire, thank, and emulate. I’ll take a shot at explaining why I think so.
John Paul II was a man whose courage was commensurate with his convictions. As a young man, he lived in Nowa Huta, the Polish version of the communists’ Potemkin Village. People there wanted to have a church, so a Polish priest and a few workers cobbled together a makeshift cross to mark the site of a chapel they hoped to build. The communists ripped it down. But when the sun rose the next morning, another cross had been raised in its place. This went on for years as the people gathered at their cross, singing and worshipping. Their faith endured against all odds, and in the end, they got their church. The man who was planting the crosses? Karol Wojtyla, later bishop of Krakow, and still later the first non-Italian Pope in history.
As a Christian persecuted for his faith under the two worst totalitarian regimes of the century, Wojtyla believed passionately in the dignity of every human being. And that’s how he lived—with the joy and vibrancy of an athlete, an intellectual, and a theologian. He literally risked his life to study theology and act in a banned theater group in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War 2. Later, he earned doctorates in philosophy and theology. And when he became pope, John Paul II used his considerable learning and charisma to take principled, often-unpopular stands. As Pat Buchanan observed:
“What set John Paul II apart from the other leaders of his time was his goodness, his holiness, his sanctity, his moral courage in defending the truths of the church and his uncompromising refusal to alter moral truth to accommodate the spirit of an immoral age. His charisma, like that of Mother Teresa, came of the fact that he was a Man of God, not a man of this world. He became popular by testifying to the unpopular truths of Jesus Christ”
When he became Pope in 1978, John Paul II joined Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in standing for the freedom and dignity of people oppressed by a virulent and spreading communism. In his ground-breaking trip to Poland, he appeared before 13 million people, energizing Lech Walesa and Solidarity, the labor movement which eventually overthrew the communist regime. And that was just the beginning of his travels for hope and freedom. By the 26th anniversary in 2004 of his election as pope, he had made 146 trips inside Italy and 104 abroad, traveling 773,520 miles, the equivalent of 31.19 times around the world. I’m so happy to agree with Billy Graham who said:
"Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world. He was truly one of those rare individuals whose legacy will endure long after he has gone."
Now maybe you’re thinking that I’ve gone off the deep end theologically in my admiration for the pope. No, I haven’t. There are many points of contention about significant theological issues yet remaining between Catholics and Protestants. But in my view, it’s just plain silly therefore to write each other off as far as true Christianity is concerned. We’ll have plenty of time in Heaven to figure out who was right about The Apocrypha and Purgatory and Mary and naming the Notre Dame sports’ teams the “Fightin’ Irish”. In the meantime, I’d like to ask how sincere believers could fail to resonate with John Paul who said in Prague on April 21, 1990, just after communism's collapse in Eastern Europe: "The claim to build a world without God has been shown to be an illusion." Indeed.
Death came to John Paul after years of frailty. The world watched as Parkinson's disease and arthritis slowly changed him from the robust hiker of his early papacy to a hunched old man unable to walk and barely able to speak. Most public figures would hide their disability a la FDR and his wheelchair. I imagine that for most of us, hubris would dictate that we not expose the fragility of our suffering. Yet as he lay dying, John Paul’s spokesman explained how suffering is redeemed, and in doing so, he gives hope to all of us. Not only did he show us how to live with courage and faith. He showed us how to die with courage and faith as well. No wonder the 65,000 plus people gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome keeping watch as the pope lay dying burst into spontaneous applause when word came that John Paul II had passed away. It was an ovation for a life well-lived right to the very, very end.
In John Paul’s inaugural sermon as pope, his first words were: “Be not afraid!” He never was, even unto death. As we mourn the passing of a great leader, I confess as a protestant pastor that my spiritual life and faith has been enriched by this Catholic pope who taught me that being a hero isn’t about success or power. It’s about loving God and having convictions and walking in faith and “being not afraid”—whether it’s planting crosses in a communist enclave or suffering and facing death with dignity. The last word John Paul II spoke on earth was “Amen”. To his life, his love for God, and his inspired leadership, I echo “Amen”!