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John Paul II: An Assessment


John Paul II: An Assessment

John Paul’s resilience was exemplary. He saw first-hand the Nazi occupation of his beloved Poland , only to witness, without letup, the Communist takeover and brutal suppression of his people. Throughout the decades of totalitarian savagery visited upon the nations of Eastern Europe he never softened in his recognition of and resistance to a godlessness no less wicked because it came from the political left. (Many people naively assume that the left is less monstrous than the right.) Amidst it all he continued to hope for the day, in God’s own time, when Communism would finally expose itself as unambiguously cruel and deceptive. His support of Lech Walesa and of the Polish populace leavened public awareness and fortified private conviction until Marxist leaders had to admit they could no longer manage the people.

Even as he discerned evil in the world-at-large when other appeared not to, John Paul was just as quick to discern sin in the “heart-at-small” as he confessed the arrears of sin in himself and repented it. No one questioned his outpouring to the priest he named his confessor and through whom he sought to hear the Word of pardon from the crucified. No one regarded as poor taste, or worse, poor theatre, his protracted periods of lying prostrate, face-down, when he deplored the innermost shame and guilt he never attempted to deny.

Yet while he knew the church to consist of penitent sinners, he was always aware that the powers of death will never prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18 ) not because of the church’s inherent virtue (he had no illusions here) but because of God’s promise and patience. God has pledged himself to the people who are his “peculiar treasure”. (Exodus 19:5 KJV) Only by grace, yet assuredly by grace, the church remains a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – and all of this precisely for the purpose of declaring the truth and mercy of the God who still calls us out of darkness and into his marvellous light. (1st Peter 2:9) Trusting God’s faithfulness to God’s own promises, John Paul exhibited a patience that always found him diligent in his work with an appropriate urgency, yet never frenzied or frantic. He rooted himself in the church, that ship that could ride out the worst storms of sin, treachery and disgrace.

Disgrace trumpeted itself during his tenure. The sex-scandals involving priests, all of whom were sworn to celibacy, became increasingly notorious as clergy betrayal and exploitation of children surface first in Newfoundland, was heard of in many venues (including aboriginal schools in Canada’s north), and came to most concentrated attention in Boston , where dozens of historic Roman Catholic church buildings had to be sold in order to defray the lawsuits of disillusioned and outraged families. John Paul was unyielding; resolutely he insisted that there is no place in the priesthood for sexual exploiters. Whereas ecclesiastical officialdom had falsified itself shamefully in a vain attempt at keeping skeletons closeted, John Paul frankly owned the perfidy of fellow-priests and pledged assistance to their victims.

No less movingly he recognized victims of a different sort with a different history; namely Jewish people. As a pole he was singularly equipped in this regard, for Poland had had the highest concentration of Jewish people of any country in the world, only to have ninety percent of them liquidated (4.5 million). In addition John Paul’s detailed reading of history allowed him to grasp what few North Americans have yet; namely, that for the Jewish people the Middle Ages was one, dark, endless, night of suffering visited on them by Christians both ignorant and learned, indifferent and devout. His frank acknowledgement of the church’s centuries-long abuse gained him the admiration and affection of Jews around the world. His overture in this area continues to bear fruit as Roman Catholic Christians have re-owned the Jewish root of the faith, as well as the place in God’s economy of the Jewish people as Jews (i.e., not merely as potential converts to the church). The pope built bridges between church and synagogue that continue to bring blessings to both.

A learned theologian and philosopher (see his encyclical, “Faith and Reason”), he had additional gifts that erudite people frequently lack. One such gift was an ability to handle the media. Never gullible concerning the “power of the press” and its capacity for misrepresentation, John Paul knew that his “management” skill concerning the print and electronic vehicles was an opportunity for him to commend gospel, kingdom, church and papal office.

His ability to relate to young people was a similar gift. Whenever he spoke, wherever he appeared, young people “fell” for him. No one can forget the aged man winsomely attracting and addressing young people in Toronto on the steamiest day of the summer while radio and TV interviewers sought (unsuccessfully) to dilute young Catholics’ ardour by interjecting reminders of the church’s shadow side.

Yet there is “another side” to John Paul that has to be noted. Whereas Pope John XXIII had spoken of Protestants as “separated brethren”, John Paul never acknowledged us to be brothers of any sort. He never recognized us as part of the body of Christ.

While his stand against homosexual behaviour and abortion was encouraging, his intransigence on the ordination of women was not.

While Protestants of orthodox conviction uphold the virginal conception of Jesus, John Paul’s Mariology threatened the sole, saving sufficiency of Jesus.

Worst of all, his Millennial Indulgence, promulgated in 2000, recalled the occasion of the Sixteenth Century Reformation in Germany when Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg (1517), challenging readers to his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”. Luther gave ninety-five reasons why he deemed it utterly anti-gospel to think that temporal punishment for sin is remitted in exchange for a fee. In 2000 John Paul’s Indulgence decree, signed by a subordinate cardinal, confirmed Protestants in their understanding of the battle-cry of their Reformation ancestors: Ecclesia Reformata Et Semper Reformanda. The church – reformed by the gospel, ever stands in need of being reformed at the hands of the selfsame gospel.

God is to be praised for the witness of the late Pope John Paul II, even as Protestants will invoke that gospel whose purity alone can – and will – fashion the church, the Bride of Christ, whose splendour is ultimately “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:27)



Victor Shepherd