What place does the pope have in the lives of non-Catholics?
Though I’ve lived through three papacies, Pope John Paul II has defined what a pope is and does for a billion Catholics and for the rest of the world. He was very conservative on most issues but no other pope had traveled and perhaps few others had advocated for the poor like he did. He traveled to 129 countries. When he visited Africa, many non-Catholics wanted to see him, hear him say, "Do not be afraid."
Pope John Paul II set the tone for how widely a modern pope is expected to travel and bring a message of hope and love for humanity through Jesus Christ. He did not stand down against leaders, from Reagan to Bush, on the call for peace. He is credited for a major role in the fall of communism and the movement in Poland. Yet, he also perpetuated a hard-line role against contraception, even as a protector against HIV, which gravely impacts poor nations in their fight against AIDS. He also remained firm on celibacy and unmarried priesthood, which many believe should change, particularly in light of the sex scandal of the American Catholic Church.
I was not raised to revere or honor the pope. Too much of the priesthood of all believers, calling no one “father” and perhaps influence of democracy had surged through my veins to think much about the pope. I was not even “Protestant,” those who protested against Rome and how they were raising money for the Vatican by charging indulgences for absolution of sin and eternal damnation and other corruption. I came from a “free” church. Free of hierarchy, free to choose (sounds more like economics), free to interpret Scripture (as long as it fit within certain pre-set and unwritten parameters).
Twenty-six years ago, my memory of the choosing of Pope John Paul II was the smoke billowing out of the Vatican near the Sistine Chapel where the Cardinals were meeting for the Conclave. Then, several years into the papacy of John Paul II, I went to Italy and visited several cities, including Rome. The Vatican is one of the most jaw-dropping places in the world. Walking into St. Peter’s Basilica and the amazement of seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta grows in me still today, eighteen years later. Again, I was pre-disposed to dismiss the extravagance of religious iconography. At the time, I was only nineteen and though taking art appreciation, I was yet to appreciate art as Spiritual, as I am learning to do now. My wife, Jill, also traveled to Italy with Harding University in Florence program. She, however, saw Pope John Paul II.
Yesterday, Jill gathered our children around her scrapbook (she had not pulled it out in years) and showed them the photo she had taken when the pope walked past her in St. Peter’s. Our children want to know why the pope is so important, why all the attention is on his death right now. We talked about how he's the leader of one billion people, their church, and he is in the line of many who have decided important things about what Christians have believed about Jesus and his mission. Yet, we temper it with our own understanding of the priesthood of all believers, the message of Hebrews, the way we are shepherded by loving elders in our lives today. Though we are not "told" what to believe by the pope, his office has still influenced what we believe over the years and I would venture to say, still does. His stands make a difference to many beyond the Catholic faith, in what they come to believe for themselves. Here is the photo Jill took of John Paul II in 1987 in St. Peter's Basilica.
A few years ago I took a course that centered on Historical Theology. That means the study of doctrines as they have emerged through Christian history. For the first time, I considered the importance of theological decisions, good and bad, of important leaders in the church over the last two millennia. For the first time I came to grips with the idea that perhaps the Catholic Church’s concern for accurately and theologically interpreting Scripture was at its heart, like mine, but lived out and structured much differently. One central role of the pope through the ages has been to safeguard doctrine.
The Catholic Church and the Church Fathers developed much of the understanding that many of us take for granted today: for example, the doctrine of Jesus Christ, that he is God and man, that he was not created but that all was created through him. Yes, Scripture on who Jesus may seem clear to us today, but remember that Scripture was not widely distributed and translated into many languages until after the Reformation. Many centuries of debate, martyrdom and struggle came over this belief about the Christ.
This is not a thesis in support of hierarchy or non-Catholics following the pope, but it is an exercise in thinking through how the church through the ages, and today, has influenced and continues to influence us, both negatively and positively.