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FIRST-PERSON: Pope John Paul II’s legacy

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–No pope in recent memory has had the impact of John Paul II, whose death was mourned this week by many around the world.

Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II was shaped by his Polish upbringing, particularly the Holocaust of World War II. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1965.

During the early years of his papal leadership, his tours across the world stirred millions, particularly young people, to more faithful commitment to the church and to humankind. He was trained in drama and acting in his college years. There he learned the importance of a “public moment,” which has, to the amazement of many, been the key which has connected him with young people in such an exciting way all around the world.

The pope was a voice of hope for those who suffered at the hands of tyranny and communism. The freedom of the oppressed in Poland, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the fall of Latin American dictatorships and the new openness to religion in Cuba cannot be understood apart from the obvious fingerprints of Pope John Paul II on these events.

At the heart of this pope’s message over the past two decades was the resounding theme that it is the task of men and women to make life more human, to achieve full dignity. Freedom, he maintained, is the condition of this dignity, but freedom is under threat from oppressive governments, from atheism, from consumerism and from a misunderstanding of human rights. He did not waver from his message over the past 26 years.

A second major theme was society’s obligations toward the poor and the achievement of greater social justice. He served as a powerful and active advocate on behalf of the poor, yet he was especially critical of Marxism and liberation theology, in what he saw as misguided efforts in behalf of the poor — efforts that are not faithful to Scripture or the historical Christian tradition. In this regard, he called for the silence of Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff. This pope did not lack courage in challenging and disciplining thinkers like Boff or others he considered to be out of line with the church’s tradition, such as the Swiss theologian Hans Küng or the Sri Lankan Tissa Balasuriya.

The crisis in the American Catholic Church over the priesthood and inappropriate sexual activity with parishioners, especially young men, was a scourge on the church and a source of much grief for the pope. He attempted to balance his concerns with redemptive discipline that nevertheless brought criticism from numerous sectors inside and outside the church.

Pope John Paul will best be remembered as a champion of human rights, as an advocate for the poor, as a voice for peace and as a stalwart of Catholic orthodoxy, particularly on matters like abortion and homosexuality. John Paul II spoke powerfully against the culture of death and his legacy will be grounded in his call for a new commitment to a culture of life.

As the Roman Catholic Church enters a time of transition, it will be built upon this pope’s efforts over the past three decades. In the future the church likely will be looking to the southern hemisphere for future leadership with the expanding influence of African and Latin American bishops. As Baptists and evangelicals, we will continue to have significant and substantive theological differences with the pope’s teaching, including the very concept of the papacy itself. Yet, at this time we offer thanksgiving for the life, legacy and moral courage of Pope John Paul II.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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  • David S. Dockery