Tuesday, April 05, 2005

What place does the pope have in lives of non-Catholics?

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 Pope John Paul IIgrows 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. Pope John Paul II

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.


ourgreenroom said...

Thanks for this post. My wife and I were in Rome in November of 2004 and had a similar experience to what you talked about ("jaw dropping"). I think that the one thing that stood out to me was the lack of history that so many church people have -- including myself. Our memory of God's story skips from the first century to 1950 without much in the middle. Standing in front of the Pieta was a Holy Moment for us. Thanks for reminding me!

Chris Green
Lubbock, Texas

James said...

This was an excellent post, I think it really embodies some of the attitude that we should have towards all Christian churches. While non-Catholics may not recognize the authority that is given to the Pope by the Catholic church, it doesn't mean that the example he sets and life he lives should be taken any less lightly. As he has been during his life and now after his death, he should continue to be honored for his work around the world. He leveraged the political clout and moral influence of Catholicism to topple oppressive leaders and tackle human rights issues, but always with a kind of loving and just criticism not harsh reprimand. I also agree with Chris, the history they offer Christianity while not always pretty, is history we should remember nonetheless - especially the blend of art, music, and faith that was brought about in the Renaissance. Like I said, we may not agree with every doctrine and practice that is celebrated in Catholic churches, but the global outreach efforts that they spearhead are an example we can all learn from. Thanks for the excellent thoughts.


Greg Kendall-Ball said...

I'm not sure I know the right answer to this question, but I sure know the wrong one!

I'm sitting here in my office where, as of 10 minutes ago, the flags that fly at the main entrance to a certain university are still flying at full-mast. We've dropped them for many things (students in accidents, local Air Force deaths, etc.), and when Pres. Reagan died, I think they were down for at least a month. Yet, this great man of God is gone, and we seem to be ignoring it.

Something about that just feels wrong!

Tony Arnold said...


My two trips to the vatican also just overwhelmed me. It is difficult to describe the grandeur and scale. You have to experience it. I too share a better understanding of Catholism than earlier in my life and I appreciate much of it, specifically the focus on meditative and contemplative aspects of worship. When the political and bureaucratic aspects where rebelled against via many reformations, I think we might have thrown the baby out with the bath water. It is ironic that conservative Protestant churches are beginning to include meditative and contemplative aspects into their worship services.

I respect the role of the Catholic Church in preservation and study of Christian doctrine. I can see how this ~2000 year history of research, study, prayer, and cataloguing brings comfort and stability to so many people's faith. In fields such as science and medicine, this process is praised and adds credibility. Men such as Augustine, Benedict, Thomas Merton have aided our spiritual growth in very profound ways. Also, so much benevolent work gets done in the world through the economic juggernaut of the Cathloic Church. My neighbor's mother had free assisted living because of her Catholic faith. I am not aware of any CofC's offering free care.

But then you have aspects such as the deification of Mary, needing the Saints as intercessors, etc. I would have a real problem with kissing anybody's ring, especially a religious leader's.

Tony Arnold
Nashville, TN

Josh.Graves said...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
A Menorah from the Pope?

I've enjoyed hearing the many anecdotes that have surfaced in regards to the life of Pope John Paul II over the last few days. Tales of his love for poetry, skiing, philosophy, and hiking. The world needs to remember that before he was the Pope, he was a man with crazy dreams about life, love, and friendship.

One story in particular came during an interview with Larry King the other night. I forget the gentleman's name, he was the Pope's official orchestra director, but he developed a unique relationship with the man. A few details are important here. One, the Pope sought this man out because he lived in the Pope's childhood town. Second, this man is Jewish.

One of the director's sons recently recieved a menorah from the 16th century as a gift from the Pope. The director said this gift was typical of the nature of their friendship. Love, acceptance, affection-some call it incarnational, some call it being Jesus. I call it true to the nature of the Gospel. Living with people in a Gospel way as opposed to convincing people that the Christian faith is the sum of its rational arguments.

One of the pastors at the church I attend noted the incarnational nature of the Pope's ministry-being among the poor, hugging them, touching, looking them in their eyes, validating their humanity, seeing them as full persons.

There is much I don't understand about highly institutionalized relgions (of which fundamentalists sometimes tend to be the worst)but I do know that God can redeem them. I think Pope John Paul II was God's activity in the life of the Church universal among the world.

Bruce said...


Thanks for your thought provoking words about John Paul II. The apostle Paul said that those who have the Spirit of God are the sons of God. By his fruit, we know John Paul was a great son of God.

That may be a controversial stance, given our restoration history, but it is in my opinion an accurate one. Yes, many of us would disagree with the clergy/laity distinction. We would disagree that one man could be the vicar of Christ, when Scripture says the church is the vicar. But his accomplishments are staggering and it would be wrong to not give proper worship to God for what he accomplished through John Paul's life.

For me, I will always remember the reaction of Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader of Poland, when he first met John Paul. The camera tightened on the general's shaking knees and trembling hands as he stood a few feet away from the pontif. John Paul carried within himself the presence of a pure and holy God that those in darkness feared. This ruthless despot was reduced to a column of jello in the presence of a real man of God. It's as if he knew communism was immoral and its days were numbered in one pregnant second. The blinding light of righteousness was too much. It was just a matter of time before Poland would be free.

So we do we take from the life of John Paul? May we be that kind of light. May we as individuals rededicate ourselves to prayer and to holy living that we can be the city on the hill. The light from a poor man from Poland brought an evil regime to its knees. We too can puncture the gates of hell when we let the light rule our lives.

Bruce Bates
Cumberland, RI

Brian Casey said...

We can and should draw lessons from the lives of others, certainly including the Pope, if in fact he manifests admirable qualities, which this one did, according to what I read. I benefited from reading of the impact of John Paul II on humankind

In our flight from the critical spirits and actions of some in the past, let us not, though, be found inclined toward a hierarchical, dogmatic, anti-Jesus system such as Catholicism. In our desire to be kind and accepting of all men, building bridges and extending both the grace AND the truth of the Lord Messiah, let us see the system -- to which the Pope certainly subscribed, and under which millions of Catholics suffer, whether they know it or not -- as the barrier to God that it is.

No religious system is perfect -- least of all, mine -- but not many "mainline" systems have done more than Catholicism through the centuries to keep people from seeking and worshipping God truly. This strong statement says nothing of sincere seekers within the system, mind you!

Tristin said...

Mr. Casey,

Interestingly enough the Catholic church (including the Orthodox) was for about 1500 years God's sole enSpirited church in the world. They did important things like missionize, cannonize all Christian Scripture, and came up with this neat idea called the Trinity.

I think its fairly safe to say that God's work in the world didn't start with the reformation or restoration traditions. And I say I must take great offense at the "Anti-Jesus" remark.

I think it might be remarks like that which have historically (and by historically I mean 'within the last 50 years') made people extremely angry at Church of Christers.

Nice one,

Brian Casey said...

I am sorry for offending Tristin with my choice of words. I do not believe that Catholic people are anti-Jesus, and I'm sorry for leaving that impression. I do believe that the Catholic system -- and any system, for that matter -- *tends* to be opposed to the spirit of Jesus' teachings. I have had discussions with enough Catholics and former Catholics to feel that my general position here is substantiated.

It is the *system* that is the problem, and to the extent that the system is perpetuated by humans like the Pope, those humans in power should be challenged. But again: challenging doctrinal stances and reexamining interpretations do not equate to saying there are no sincere believers within Catholicism. Of course, there are.

No humans should have positional authority over any other; that seems clear from the Lord's teachings.

Extra-biblical notions of "Trinity" invented in the centuries following the apostles' death notwithstanding, I know Catholicism is not wholly culpable. The canonization process was, to an extent, the work of the Catholics, and I believe God could (and presumably did) work within that flawed human system.

I do not suggest that the American Restoration or European Protestant Reformation movements represented the end of all darkness and the absolute *beginning* of anything ordained of God. On the contrary: it may be when a move of the Spirit becomes a moveMENT of men that it begins to take on its own life, thereby obscuring the life-giving essence of God.

I do confess a good deal of loyalty to "my people," but I'm much less a Church of Christer than I am a generic Christian.