Friday, October 17, 2003

Thoughts on John Paul
Throughout this past week, celebrations commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate have been happening in Rome. It's a bit weird being old enough to remember when a man now routinely described as failing and frail was hardy and jock-like. It makes me feel old and understand that one day perhaps, senior citizen status will descend on me.

Upon his election by the College of Cardinals in 1978 and for several years thereafter, John Paul seemed to be an ecclesiastical wunderkind: poet, playwright, skier, hiker, multiple-linguist, resister of Nazis and Communists, peripatetic world traveler. Even after surviving an assassination attempt in 1981, there seemed little that this pope wouldn't or couldn't do.

Even now, suffering from Parkinson's Disease, he drives on with his work!

In that driving, he also manages to drive many of my Roman Catholic friends crazy, mostly owing to his intransigence on priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

Belonging to a denomination which allows the ordained to be married and which also ordains women, I have a slightly different perspective on John Paul, I suppose. Not engaged in controversy with him, I may be a bit more charitable and detached.

For one thing, I note that he tends to drive both conservatives and liberals--whether of the religious or political varieties--equally crazy. The implacable foe of the communist system that once enslaved his native Poland has also opposed the materialist excesses of market capitalism. (This "conservative" it turns out, is a socialist.)

Pleasing conservatives, he has ardently opposed abortion. (As did Mother Teresa, who was beatified by the pope earlier today.) But displeasing those same conservatives, John Paul has also opposes the death penalty.

He pleases traditionalists of his own faith when adhering to convential Roman Catholic practice. But he raises those same traditionalists' eyebrows when he repents for the Church's past treatment of the Jews and reaches out to Protestants and Muslims.

As a Protestant, I believe that authority in the Church is not ultimately expressed in priests, bishops, or popes. As a Lutheran, I reject the very notion of an episcopal succession and believe, as the confessions of my church hold, that the Bible is the authoritative source and norm of the Church's life, faith, and practice. The Bible, I believe--based most explicitly on a passage authored by the man that Roman Catholic tradition holds served as the first pope, First Peter 2:9-10--commends no hierarchy in Christ's Church. Instead, all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord are part of a "priesthood of all believers." Followers of Jesus differ only in function, not status.

But for all these differences in theology and misgivings I have about the propriety of the very office of pope, I agree with evangelist Billy Graham, who has described John Paul as the greatest pope of his lifetime.

Gerard Baker, in yesterday's Financial Times, points out that behind all of John Paul's dizzying activity and stubborn intransigence is a consistently-held and consistently-pursued principle, the principle of life over against the culture of death. John Paul II has been a truly Christian countercultural figure, standing against the warped values of a dying world, proclaiming a still more excellent way that begins by following Jesus Christ.

For his constant loyalty to life's sanctity in the midst of bloody, violent times, John Paul deserves the appreciation and applause of all the world. Tonight, before this Protestant goes to bed, I'll say a little prayer, thanking God for the pope from Poland who drove us all a little nuts and gave us all important things to think about, to pray about, to act upon.

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