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Memories of the Pope

Jeffery A. Johnson

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It was January 1999. People swarmed the streets of St. Louis, Missouri on a sunny winter day. I was one among the many, waving a papal flag, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the pope to America. We marched, sang and proclaimed our pride at being members of the largest body in Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.

Our excitement was only interrupted by groups of Protestant fundamentalists picketing throughout the city. They tried to force anti-Catholic literature into the hands of everyone who passed by.

As the evening came and the sun set the "Popemobile" finally approached. For no more than a few seconds I saw through a camera lens the figure of the Polish pontiff. By the time I snapped a picture (which later turned out blurred) he was out of sight. I returned home disappointed that my glimpse of the pope had been so brief, but happy that I still had the opportunity to take part in that historic event, which turned out to be John Paul II's last visit to the U.S.

A lot has changed in my life since then. Four years ago I converted from Catholicism to the Eastern Orthodox Church, convinced that it alone had preserved the fullness of the apostolic Christian faith.

Now that Pope John Paul II has died, I wonder if I have the right to grieve. I wonder how I and others like myself who have left the Church of Rome for Orthodoxy are supposed to remember this man, whom we admired, loved, but nonetheless disagreed with when it came to some important matters of faith.

We know that JP II desired unity between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and that he hoped such would happen during his lifetime. Yet if we Orthodox are to be true to our faith, which emphasizes that unity cannot exist on the basis of truth compromised, we realize that this cannot be at this point in time and in all likelihood may never be. The differences in ecclesiology, theology and spirituality cannot be ignored.

But there were some beliefs on which Orthodox could certainly agree with the pope. We know that JP II was a champion of the unborn, the suffering and the poor. He abhorred violence. He was relentless in stressing that morality was not a matter of opinion, but of obedience to the teachings of Christ. He reached out to people of all ethnic groups and in that regard puts to shame those of us Orthodox who still cling to the "ghetto" mentality.

I am truly saddened that this wonderful man is no longer with us. I am even more saddened that his church and mine have been out of communion with one another for 950 years. May the servant of God, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, rest in peace. Amen.

Jeffery A. Johnson is a parishioner at St. Thomas Antiochian Orthodox Church, Sioux City, Iowa.

Posted: 16-Apr-05

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