April 4, 2005
When Karol Wojtyla was named pope in 1978, I was a 15-year-old Roman Catholic attending St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip.
Much to the chagrin of my parents, I'm sure, my faith was superficial, and the death of two popes that year and the appointment of John Paul II affected me little.
More than 26 years later as a Lutheran who through God's grace now has a deep faith, I feel loss at the death of this pope.
Oh, my, what would Martin Luther say? Considering that Luther set out to reform the church, not create a new one - and given Pope John Paul II's effect across Christianity and the world in general - I envision Luther and John Paul II sharing conversation and the unfathomable rewards of heaven.
People of all faiths could embrace the late pope's role in toppling atheistic communism in Eastern Europe. As a Pole, he experienced firsthand the evils of the Nazis and then the Communists. As pope, he provided the spark, moral clarity and support that helped to topple communism in Poland and eventually the Soviet empire.
The Rev. Randolph Jon Geminder, an Episcopal priest at St. Mary's Church in Amityville, recalled: "I remember distinctly that time when he was being prohibited from visiting Poland, and he said, 'I am a priest visiting my parish, you will not stop me.' He stared down the Soviets."
Speaking in Poland in June 1979, John Paul II declared: "Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man." The people responded, "We want God, we want God." It turned out that the Communists rightly feared this messenger.
John Paul II also reached beyond just Roman Catholics with his unequivocal stand for life.
The Rev. Hans Jacobse, from St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, Fla., editor of OrthodoxyToday.org, told me: "To Christianity, I think the greatest contribution was his moral leadership, particularly his clear articulation of culture-of-life issues. ... He defined the culture of death for us. Then he confronted it and taught and inspired others to confront it as well. I think he is the leader in this area for all Christians of every denomination."
In his "Gospel of Life" encyclical in 1995, John Paul II railed against laws authorizing or promoting abortion and euthanasia.
The pope wrote: "Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good."
On reaching out to other faiths, this pope seemed to have a deep desire for greater Christian unity, with love, principle and seriousness - a rare combination in ecumenism.
The Rev. Frank Senn, pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., and senior of The Society of the Holy Trinity, a religious order of Lutheran pastors, observed: "For Christianity in general, he built ecumenical relationships between churches on the solid foundation of doctrinal agreement." Senn added: "He approached other religions with uncommon humility. No one can forget his act of contrition for sins committed against the Jews."
Finally, the man's charisma, warmth and sense of humor served his mission well. Geminder amusingly reflected: "He was so loving and gentle and had done so many things that made him seem human that he was able, in a sense, to get away with it. People would say, 'Gee, I guess that teaching isn't so rigid if he believes it.' "
So maybe it isn't so strange that a graduate of Long Island Catholic schools and a current Lutheran who embraces traditional Christianity and longs for greater Christian unity, should feel the loss of Pope John Paul II.
Read this article on the Newsday website (link closed). Reprinted with permission.