News Articles

WORLDVIEW: John Paul II & lessons for evangelicals

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Warned of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in lands he plotted to enslave, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once famously sneered, “How many divisions does the pope command?”

Enough divisions, as it turned out, to help bring down communism in Europe. Divisions — not of soldiers and tanks — but of faith, courage and the hunger for freedom.

Their general: an unarmed Polish freedom fighter named Karol Wojtyla.

He survived the near-destruction of his beloved Poland by the Nazis, only to see it colonized by the communists. He saw his Jewish friends and Catholic university professors sent to Auschwitz -– the factory of death near his hometown — and other concentration camps.

Alone in the world after the deaths of his parents and only brother, he pounded rocks in a limestone quarry under Nazi rule, gaining rough worker’s hands and hard muscles. He risked his life daily by studying secretly for the priesthood, helping shelter Jews and resisting Nazism as a member of an underground drama group. Athlete, poet, playwright, actor, scholar, intellectual, mystic — he bloomed like a flower in a prison yard.

After ordination as a priest, he quickly rose through the clerical ranks as bishop, archbishop and cardinal in the 1950s and ‘60s –- all while courageously (and cleverly) jousting with the ruling communist government that sought to stamp out all religious life in Poland.

This was the man who returned to Poland in 1979, a quarter-century after Stalin’s death, as Pope John Paul II. He stood before a million Poles at an outdoor Mass in Warsaw and declared his lifelong motto, “Be not afraid!”

It electrified the world, shook Communist Party bosses all the way to the Kremlin and signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe — and eventually Russia itself. Even an assassination attempt against him (likely coordinated by Eastern European intelligence services) didn’t stop the march he led toward freedom. Other potent allies would join him: Lech Walesa and the Solidarity worker movement, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the Germans who brought down the Berlin Wall, dissidents and human rights activists and Christian believers throughout the continent.

But John Paul cracked open the door.

“Without this pope, it would be impossible to understand what happened in Europe at the end of the 1980s,” said a man who should know — former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its empire.

“The tree was rotten,” John Paul later said. “All I did was shake it.”

Is it any wonder that this man was not intimidated in later years by the Western elites –- inside and outside the Catholic Church -– who tried to browbeat him into submitting to their unoriginal notions of “progress”?

Like the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his philosophical soul mate and fellow survivor of communism, John Paul recognized that the West’s unfettered selfishness, secularism and greed threatened the human soul just as much as the atheistic totalitarianism he had battled for decades. The tree of Western relativism was just as rotten as the East’s godless tyranny -– and just as desperately in need of redemption.

One of the hallmarks of John Paul’s papacy, according to Frank Bruni of The New York Times, was his “steadfast refusal to accept that certain modern practices should be deemed morally correct just because they were popular.”

Better to lose the world, John Paul reasoned, than to give in to it. But he had no intention of losing it: John Paul was the missionary pope. He traveled to 129 countries, spoke eight languages fluently and possessed a nodding acquaintance with scores of other tongues –- all in order to spread the Catholic faith.

Millions of Protestants and evangelicals loved him for his zeal, his personal warmth and his unyielding stand for human dignity, the sanctity of life and many other moral convictions they share.

Following John Paul’s death, Billy Graham declared he was “unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years…. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world…. His courage and perseverance in the face of advancing age and illness were an inspiration to millions -– including me.”

In admiring John Paul, there’s no need to gloss over the theological differences between evangelical Protestantism and his traditional brand of Catholicism. They remain almost as profound as the differences between Martin Luther and the popes of his day. For all his ecumenical impulses, John Paul himself certainly didn’t gloss over them.

Evangelicals find salvation in Christ by grace through faith alone, and find revealed truth in the Word of God. John Paul found his truth in Christ as revealed through the Roman Catholic Church, its sacraments and traditions, the papacy itself -– and a lifelong, mystical devotion to Mary.

But there’s a great deal evangelicals can learn from this amazing man. A few essentials:

— Christianity is the global faith, not a national or regional religion.

John Paul didn’t travel the world incessantly just to see the sights. He realized at the beginning of his papacy that the growth and future of the church had moved south to Latin America and Africa and east toward Asia. So he went there to evangelize, while simultaneously working to “re-evangelize” the traditional centers of Catholicism.

Non-Catholics don’t realize that his globetrotting remained controversial inside the Vatican. Many bishops and cardinals wanted him to stay home like other popes, administer the church bureaucracy and take care of the flock.

How many local pastors can relate to the pressure to ignore missions?

— Young people are the key.

John Paul, even in his declining years, exerted a magnetic attraction on youth the world over. Even in secularized America and Western Europe, they flocked to him in their millions. It wasn’t just that he was a kindly father figure. He confronted them with the challenge and call to life purpose they are looking for in a purposeless age: Sacrifice your selfish desires, live in holiness, serve others.

“Christ is looking for young people like you!” he said, pointing his finger at his youthful listeners like Uncle Sam recruiting fresh troops.

Are we evangelicals issuing the same bold challenge to our children — or tickling their ears with sanctified entertainment in hopes they won’t abandon our churches altogether?

— Stand firm against the watering down of the truth.

We conservative evangelicals like to think we’re guarding and practicing the true faith while liberal Protestants hop on whatever social bandwagon the world drags by. Are we for real, or are we posers? Examine the ministries you emphasize, the cars parked outside your sanctuary, the ways you spend your spare time. You live what you believe, said Peter Lord; everything else is religious talk.

— Suffering becomes holy when we accept it as a gift of God.

John Paul earned the right to preach this maxim -– and he lived it to the end. He saw believers persecuted and killed for their faith almost from the beginning of his life, and found meaning in their pain. What about us? Do we seek the way of the cross wherever it leads, or do we seek the comforts of our safe, affluent culture?

— Every life has dignity and eternal worth, from conception to natural death — and beyond.

That includes the unborn and the born, the young and the aged, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the children of God and the lost. Do we live every day and treat every person we encounter in light of this truth?

Ponder these things as a giant of modern history departs from our midst.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges