The death of Pope John Paul II on 2 April 2005 sent an amazing reverberation throughout the world, both Christian and non-Christian, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. As the millions pour into Rome to pay their respects and as the worlds seems to stand still to honor this single life I stop too, to examine just what this means to me.
As an American, and a Christian of Protestant extraction, and a Southerner, I am perhaps as far removed from the world of Roman Catholics as a Christian is likely to be. Growing up I never knew a single Catholic, never knew a Jew, or Muslim until college. Even then my experience was very limited as I attended a Baptist university. No, my world was colored in one hue only. Yet when someone mentioned the Pope, or anything about the Roman church, I had a firm image. That was of the kind faced, strong figure from Poland. He has been the only Pope I have ever known.
I remembered the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and then on the Pope. I grew up in a world split in two, the free West, and the Soviet dominated communist bloc. I knew no other system. Catholics were rarely mentioned, but when they were, this one image was there. He was there in my youngest years, my teenage years, through high school, college, marriage, always there. It seemed he always would be. For people of my generation, Ronald Reagan was our president, like our grandparents had FDR. John Paul II was our Pope as well, whether we were Catholic or not.
I was never exposed to the sometimes rabid anti-Catholicism of some Protestant churches. I suppose this left me with a somewhat more accomdating mind set towards the Roman church. I did however grow up with a devouring sense of and love of history. That in itself made the Catholic church interesting for study. Through the years therefore I accumulated a store of knowledge about the various Christian churches and their conflicts and triumphs; sometimes profound, sometimes absurd.
This past week with the death of John Paul II and the worldwide outpouring of grief and mourning, joy and remembrance I have been struck that sometimes the greatest supporters of the Pope have in recent years been Evangelical Protestants, while his greatest detractors have often been liberal American Catholics. The irony is striking.
While most Protestants certainly still have many conflicts with Catholic doctrine and the office of the papacy, few deny the singular greatness of this Pope. That greatness was not based on his political power, or social movements, important as they may be. No, his greatness was based on something deeper. A goodness that could be based only in a faith in Jesus Christ, and an absolutely fearless certainty that this world, and all of mankind are in God’s hands and part of His plan. That is the kind of faith that makes a man able to survive Nazis and Communists, a world riven by secularism, and great suffering with disease. It is the kind of faith that not only shows us an example of how to live, but of how to die as well. It is the kind of faith that gives an understanding of man’s true nature; so much so that the Pope was to write a prayer in his will for the “Mercy of God to show itself to be greater than my weakness and unworthiness”. That is what makes a man great, if any can be so called in this world. That is what made him my Pope too.
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As a Catholic (we're not all bad :) ) I appreciate your comments. I think that the Pope was a wonderful image of what a Christian should be. I think that also, given your intellectual bent as indicated in your bio, you can appreciate that the more you learn about Christianity (and indeed all faiths), the more you realize how much we all have in common.