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Pope John Paul II’s legacy of courage and humility

MY GRANDFATHER didn’t care much for Roman Catholics with good reason. Working as a missionary in the jungles of Mindinao in 1918 he barely escaped death at the hands of Jesuit zealots who saw it as their divine duty to drive out Protestant missionaries.

His brush with death left him convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the ten-horned beast of Revelation and the Pope the antichrist; a sentiment shared by many evangelicals of his era.

How different the world we inhabit today in large measure due to the remarkable papacy of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Walls of hostility have begun to come down through his courage, humility and love that are an example to us all.

Few in 1979 challenged the power of the Soviet bloc or questioned its hegemony over Poland. Yet, when this first non- Italian Pope in five centuries knelt and kissed the dull gray tarmac of the airport outside Warsaw and the bells of the churches of Poland rang in reply, the world shifted. Hundreds lined the roads cheering his arrival. Naturally, government leaders had feared thousands, or even tens of thousands, might welcome the Pope, but what they saw rocked their world. Nearly one million Poles had come to Warsaw’s city square to honour their native son and hear his word of comfort upon a people who had suffered decades in silence.

John Paul, however, didn’t offer mere comfort but a call to lift up their suffering and endurance as a “particularly responsible witness” of the cross and Christ’s resurrection. Laying down the gauntlet he asked whether they were ready to receive such a high calling. A million thundered “We want God … We want God!” In that second, the shabby façade of materialism was rent asunder. It couldn’t withstand the liberty found in Christ and his calling … “Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged … Always seek spiritual power from Him from whom countless generations of our fathers and mothers have found it. Never detach yourselves from Him.

Never lose your spiritual freedom … be strong, my brothers and sisters! You must be strong with the strength that faith gives! You must be strong with the strength of faith!

You must be faithful! You need this strength today more than any other period of our history.”

Such words of courage in the face of fear continue to resound. We grow frustrated and discouraged in the battle against false secularist assumptions and hedonist distraction. The serenity of the Christian enclave and our own private spirituality beckons when the wearying struggle to establish a truly free, just and moral society seems far off. Nonetheless, we should hear John Paul II’s words of 1979 afresh to renew our strength so as to fight the good fight and overcome a more sinister materialism.

The secret of John Paul II’s courage lay in his humility. The sad legacy of Christian leaders Protestant and Catholic through history has been to obscure, defend or explain away misdeeds. In contrast, he recognised that truth and influence begin in honest confession. Rather than excoriate zealous Jews who had unfairly attacked the Catholic Church for not doing more to resist the Nazi holocaust, John Paul II apologised for the Church’s failure to do more to rescue the Jewish people. He confessed to Muslims the evil perpetrated by the Church in the Crusades without qualification. He wept over the sad legacy of coercive conversions, exploitation of colonised peoples, the blessing and enriching of Christian conquistadors and the failure of the Church to recognise the contributions and insight of Christians from around the globe.

The list could go on, but it is his example that is important. He left a testament of humility founded in the love of Christ and His Church. It eschews our tragic reflex to preserve face, justify misdeeds, and fail to live in truth. By extending his hand in courage and humility, he sought to heal the wounds that rend Christendom by the wounds of Christ that unite it.

True courage and humility beget the same and evangelical leaders such as James Packer, Chuck Colson and others, in spite of withering criticism, have risked receiving the hand of friendship and understanding. Out of this has come a deeper understanding and appreciation of what evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics hold in common as well as a clearer sense of where our views diverge.

Though a far cry from ecumenical union, many of us have begun to recognise our brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of the table even if there remain important matters that still keep us apart.

In Ephesians, Paul speaks of how Jesus Christ laid low the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. That legacy was furthered in the life and ministry of John Paul II. To one who embodied Christ’s prayer “that they may be one as we are one”. Requiescat in pace (Rest in peace).

The Rev Dr Thomas Alan Harvey, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, works with the Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).