He was my Pope, too: a Lutheran's appreciation of John Paul II

He was my Pope, too: a Lutheran's appreciation of John Paul II

Uwe Siemon-Netto

For the last quarter of a century, this non-Catholic has had a pope. Now that John Paul II is gone, I am even more of an orphan than the Christians in the Roman church. For they will surely have another pope, but that one may not be mine, since I haven't converted.

I am sure I am reflecting the views of many Protestants. Who else but John Paul II gave voice to my faith and my values in 130 countries? Who else posited personal holiness and theological clarity against postmodern self-deception and egotism? Who else preached the gospel as tirelessly as this man?

What other clergyman played any comparable role in bringing down communism, a godless system? What other world leader - spiritual or secular - understood so profoundly how hollow and bankrupt the Soviet empire was, so much so that this tireless writer never bothered to pen an encyclical against Marxism-Leninism because he knew it was moribund?

Has there been a more powerful defender of the sanctity of life than this Pole, in whose pontificate nearly 40 million unborn babies wound up in trashcans and furnaces in the United States alone? What more fitting insight than John Paul II's definition of our culture as a culture of death - an insight that is now clearly sinking in, to wit the declining abortion rates in the United States?

In Europe some time ago, a debate occurred in Protestant churches: Should John Paul II be considered the world's spokesman for all of Christianity? This was an absurd question. Of course he spoke for all believers. Who else had such global appeal and credibility, even to non-Christians and non-believers?

In the past 25 years, I have often found myself in the odd position of having to defend "my" pope against the wrath of Catholics whose pope he officially was, at least on paper. No, he was not a comfortable pontifex maximus. The faith he preached and lived was no salami from which you could slice away bits according to your appetite.

He, the most Catholic of all contemporary Catholics, did not countenance the sale of indulgences intrinsic to contemporary ecclesial mushiness: Stay in the church, pay your dues and we'll bless in advance your sinful behavior, which we'll attribute to a God-given quirk in your personal makeup.

John Paul II wouldn't have any of that. This upset many.

Was he stubborn? Yes, he was, especially from my Protestant perspective. Why did he not permit the ordination of married men when in many parts of the world, especially France, octogenarian priests serve 20 or more altars because of the church's vocation crisis? Had he not considered the beneficial benefits of the Protestant parsonage in non-Catholic lands?

I would have had a stronger argument were it not for the snowballing divorce rates among Protestant pastors, who have frequently ceased setting shining examples to their flocks. On the other hand, Catholic seminaries in many parts of the world are filling up with a new and extraordinarily manly crop of candidates for the priesthood - manly like the pope whose example they follow.

To be a Christian doesn't mean to be cuddly. This has not been a cuddly pope, either. What he said and wrote - including 14 encyclicals filled with elegant thought and prose - has irked millions. He, who was instrumental in toppling socialism, was an inveterate preacher of justice and peace, and a harsh critic of the contemporary "Me First" variety of capitalism - but his admonitions were not rooted in Marxism-Leninism; they were based in the gospel. Thus he only did his job as supreme pontiff. And thus his warnings hit home.

Yes, my pope sometimes seemed harsh. It shocked many of his Protestant admirers that in his superbly scripted encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia he categorically ruled out altar fellowship between the Roman Catholics and us. But then, did he not have a point when he said this fellowship should come at the end of the ecumenical process - as its crowning moment?

Towards the end of his pontificate, my pope's critics, including cardinals, were increasingly shaking their heads at his stubbornness. Why would he not step down, considering that his body no longer accommodated his mind? His face looked puffed up, shook uncontrollably, saliva dripped from the corner of his mouth. Often he could not finish a sentence.


Well now, Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist, can't speak at all anymore, and nobody suggests that he should stop entrusting his important thoughts by arduous means to his computer. And John Paul II, whose mind was as clear as ever until the end, has had an additional mission Hawking does not have. It's called discipleship.

"Christ did not come down from the cross either," the pope kept saying - and did something utterly counter-cultural in an era when husbands and wives all too often find it impossible to live out their commitments beyond their first marital squabble: He bore his cross, for all to see, especially the young who came to surround this severely handicapped old man by the hundreds of thousands wherever they could, filled with immense affection and admiration.

John Paul II represented to them the opposite of the wishy-washy perversions of postmodernity with its ever-shifting "truth" claims. He was, if you pardon this very Protestant remark, the "Here I stand" kind of a guy we needed as much as ever in the church. That's why he has made disciples of millions of young people around the globe.

That's why he was my pope - and why I didn't have to be a Roman Catholic to claim him as mine.

Uwe Siemon-Netto is a Lutheran theologian and religion editor for UPI. His article (here shortened) was first published in 'Christianity Today'.

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