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FIRST PERSON: A Baptist reflection on John Paul II

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–John Paul’s 26-year pontificate, the third-longest in history we are told, will be remembered for much more than its longevity. Its impact both on the Roman Catholic Church and on the international community will be examined and pondered for decades to come.

Karol Wojtyla of Poland was the first pope to give flesh-and-blood embodiment to the longtime papal title, “universal pastor.” By his travels to more than a hundred nations and by his engagement with audiences and closeness to people, he actualized a global papacy, utilizing as well the various means of the new technological age.

As bishop and archbishop of Cracow, he had learned how to cope with communist authorities, and after assuming the papacy in 1978 he gave encouragement to Catholics living within the Soviet empire. His role in the collapse of that empire will continue to be examined and assessed, as will his tireless advocacy of international peace.

Building on the foundation laid by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, John Paul II was active in ecumenical relations with Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. All who cherish universal religious liberty should not forget his strong and open advocacy of the declaration on religious liberty when it was being debated at Vatican Council II. But the Polish pope went beyond his predecessors in the realm of interreligious relations, as was made so evident by his visits to synagogues and mosques.

Wojtyla’s keen sense of the worth and dignity of human persons was to play out not only in the issues of peace and religious liberty but also in those issues associated with the “culture of life.” His firm stances concerning abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment would not always elicit approval from all the Catholic laity but would bring concurrence from many evangelical Protestants.

A published theologian and philosopher before his election as pope, he soon moved to curb liberation theology with its basing Catholic theology on Marxist social analysis. His pontificate would produce the first universal catechism since the 16th century, and the “orthodox” or “conservative” nature of his theology would be reflected in his episcopal appointments.

John Paul II’s personal commitment to Marian spirituality marked his papacy as well as his Polish upbringing. He sought no new formulations of Mariological dogma, but his active role in Marian piety separated him from his “separated” Protestant brothers and sisters.

This pope’s tenacious retention of the male celibate priesthood, supported by late tradition but without scriptural support, together with the increasing shortage of priests, especially in Europe and North America, has elicited criticism and fueled agitation, especially among Catholic women, and laid at the feet of John Paul’s successor a major issue. The celibate priesthood and the less than prompt and vigorous Vatican response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, especially in the United States, may prove to be negatives in the continuing evaluation of John Paul II’s long and eventful papacy.

But the significant increase in the membership of the Roman Catholic Church under John Paul II and the many expressions of his personal charisma will likely cause the affirmative characteristics of his papacy to prevail. Moreover, the truly global papacy of John Paul II, who was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, likely will make it difficult for the cardinals to turn back the pages of history by electing an Italian as his successor.
James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, is the author of “Baptists and Roman Catholicism” and “Reinhold Niebuhr on Roman Catholicism.”

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  • James Leo Garrett Jr.