Before the Reformation, Protestantism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox were of one organization and one faith. But since the splintering of Christian faith hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church has not been very “catholic” (as the original, literal sense of the word which means “universal”), and the Protestant church has not much to “protest.” However, the groups still share a “Trinitarian” faith and are often lumped together by others under that broad, common label “Christian.”
It is in this sense of the word that John Paul II is called “Christian” in this editorial’s title above. Millions worldwide observed the death of this man and participated in the funeral proceedings. The gathering of ecumenical leaders – Muslim, Jew, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, etc. – and political rulers – from many lands with different persuasions: communist, democratic, Islamic, etc. – was even more impressive. Thus the adjective “Great” in the title of this piece.
As an evangelical, I want to make clear that the description “great” should not be misconstrued to mean that I subscribe to the authority of the pope (according to the Pontifical Yearbook) as expressed in the following titles,: 1) Bishop of Rome; 2) Vicar of Jesus Christ; 3) Successor of the Prince of the Apostles; 4) Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; 5) Patriarch of the West; 6) Primate of Italy; 7) Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Church of Rome; 8) Sovereign of the Vatican City State; 9) Servant of the Servants of God.
Most evangelicals would share my uncomfortable feelings, watching series of events, documentaries, interviews, etc. broadcasted by major TV networks in the US and witnessing the prayers to saints, worship of virgin Mary, celebrating papacy, Catholic claim of authority (including that of political nature, see the encyclical Ut Unum Sint bu John Paul II in 1995 and ‘New Law of the Vatican City State’ of February 2001), etc.
But upon reflection, the life of John Paul II can be seen as “great” in several aspects.
Firstly, he was a man of integrity and piety.
Through out his long tenure, he was a man of high character and true integrity, which made him a “great” leader with impact on his followers within the Catholic faith and audiences outside of his Catholic see. Though others under his tenure failed, such as the priests involved in the abuse scandal in recent years, John Paul’s personal piety, from early priesthood in Poland and through out his term in Vatican, was well recognized by all. In his recovery from the assassination attempt on his life and in his decision against retirement several years ago, he lived out his motto “totally yours.” Be it during his early years in rural Poland or celebrating open mass surrounded by millions in public meetings, his total commitment and personal piety had been proven to be powerful forces beyond his papal pronouncements and multi-lingual talents.
Secondly, he was a man with strong and consistent moral stance.
In recent decades amidst the shifting values of contemporary society and postmodern philosophy, he repeatedly was beheld as the beacon of high morals in the dark hours of relativistic postmodernism and hedonistic individualism. He was uncompromising on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, family values, etc. Even those who disagree with his theology and disapprove his Catholic doctrine cannot fault him for his conviction on issues of morality. His departure from the world scene is a major loss for the course of traditional values and high morals. He will be greatly missed by those who share his stances and strive to preserve the dignity of life, the sanctity of marriage, the primacy of spirituality and the solidarity of humanity (regardless of race, class, religion, etc.)
Thirdly, he was a man of reconciliation.
Following the teaching and spirit of Vatican II, he confessed the wrong doings of the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages and asked forgiveness from the historically mistreated Jews. He followed an ecumenical agenda: courting leaders of the Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox churches and engaging in religious dialogues with other faiths – Muslim, Jewish and Anglican. He sought to heal old wounds, strived to end racial hatred and stop tribal and international conflicts. He was a man of peace during his papacy. He was a messenger of mediation and a realistic reconciler.
Fourthly, he will be remembered in world history as a strong force against communism.
To his credit and stemming from his personal suffering at the hand of communist leaders, he was a powerful force against communism as demonstrated in his participation in the labor movement against the Polish communist regime and his partnership with President Ronald Reagan.
Finally, he was a man who finished well for the course of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II was recognized by many as one of the “greatest leaders” of the Catholic church history for many reasons. Some of the reasons more often cited are: his passion to expand the Catholic influence around the world, his special attention to the youths, his unprecedented record of travel globally, his conviction to preserve the purity of the Catholic faith, his prolific writings and publications, his insistence to maintain the papal authority of the Vatican, etc.
He started well, had consistent and strong performance for decades, and ended with a remarkable finish. No wonder that his funeral was a unique celebration of his life – with tearful farewells yet joyful admiration, spontaneous clapping by the crowd when prescribed rituals solemnly performed by the clergy, multitudes participated in a funeral marked by undivided devotion to virgin Mary yet particularly focused on his personhood of “greatness” and papal performance, joined by selected international participants, witnessed by a wide collection of global religious/political leaders along with multitude of commoners who repeatedly called for his canonization to sainthood in spite of ecclesiastic rules against it.
As an evangelical, I do not subscribe to the Catholic teachings and will not submit to the authority of Catholic papacy. But upon reflection I cannot help but recognize that John Paul II was a great Christian with remarkable accomplishments for humanity in modern history.
Dr. Enoch Wan
Chairman - Division of Intercultural Studies; Director - Doctor of Missiology Program, Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
For more articles and resources by Dr. Wan, go to:
- www.globalmissiology.net (e-journal edited by him)