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Commentary: Everybody's pope

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   Oct. 15, 2003 at 6:46 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- For the last quarter of a century, this non-Catholic has had a pope. When John Paul II is gone, I may be even more of an orphan than the Christians in the Roman church. For they will surely have another pope, but that one may not be mine, since I haven't converted.

I am sure I am reflecting the views of many Protestants. Who else but John Paul II gave voice to my faith and my values in 117 countries? Who else posited personal holiness and theological clarity against postmodern self-deception and egotism? Who else preached the Gospel as tirelessly as this man?

What other clergyman played any comparable role in bringing down communism, a godless system? Has there been a more powerful defender of the sanctity of life than this Pole in whose pontificate nearly 40 million unborn babies wound up in trashcans and furnaces in the United States alone? What more fitting insight than John Paul's definition of our culture as a culture of death?

In Europe some time ago, an absurd debate occurred in the Protestant churches: Should John Paul II be considered as the world's spokesman for all of Christianity? This was an absurd question. Of course he spoke for all believers, and of course he still does. Who else is there?

Of course, there is Billy Graham. There are many faithful Orthodox and Protestant bishops, pastors and evangelists. But there is only one truly catholic (lower-case "c," meaning universal) voice of discipleship, only one determined to pursue this discipleship to the bitter end. And that's John Paul II.

I concede there have been times when "my" pope wasn't fully my pope. When he said the Virgin Mary had saved his life at Mehmet Ali Agca's assassination attempt in 1981, he left me bewildered. As a Protestant, I would have given God alone credit for this wonderful turn of events.

We Lutherans also venerate the Virgin Mary. In some of our services the intercessory prayers begin with the words, "With Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and with all the Saints we beseech thee..." But then, the pope is by definition Catholic and therefore Marian, especially if he is a Polish pope. So, for God's sake, let the pope be pope.

But then John Paul II visited Agca in his prison cell and forgave him. Now he was again fully "my" pope. At a time when nothing plagues the world more than man's apparent inability to forgive -- an inability most egregiously obvious in the Middle East -- he reminded all Christians by his own example of their premier obligation to their fellow man -- and to the head of the Church, who is Christ.

In the past 25 years I have often found myself in the odd position of having to defend "my" pope against the wrath of Catholics whose pope he officially is, at least on paper. No, he is not a comfortable pontifex maximus. The faith he preaches and lives is no salami from which you can slice away bits according to your appetite.

He, the most Catholic of all contemporary Catholics, does not countenance the sale of indulgences intrinsic to contemporary ecclesial mushiness: Stay in the Church, pay your dues, and we'll bless in advance your sinful behavior, which we'll attribute to a God-given quirk in your personal makeup.

John Paul won't have any of that. This upsets many.

Is he stubborn? Yes, he is, especially from my Protestant perspective. Why did he not permit the ordination of married men when in many parts of the world, especially France, octogenarian priests serve 20 or more altars because of the Church's vocation crisis? Has he not considered the beneficial benefits of the Protestant parsonage in non-Catholic lands?

I would have a stronger argument were it not for the snowballing divorce rates among Protestant pastors, who have frequently ceased setting shining examples to their flocks. On the other hand, Catholic seminaries in many parts of the world are filling up with a new and extraordinarily manly crop of candidates for the priesthood -- manly like the pope whose example they follow.

To be a Christian doesn't mean to be cuddly. This is not a cuddly pope, either. What he says and writes -- though always elegantly -- has been irking millions. He, who was instrumental in toppling socialism, is an inveterate preacher of justice and peace, and a critic of the modern "Me First" variety of capitalism -- but his admonitions are not rooted in Marxism-Leninism; they are based in the Gospel. Thus he is only doing his job as supreme pontiff.

Yes, my pope sometimes seems harsh. It shocked many of his Protestant admirers that in his superbly scripted encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (Church of the Eucharist) he categorically ruled out altar fellowship between the Roman Catholics and us. But then, did he not have a point when he said this fellowship should come at the end of the ecumenical process -- as its crowning moment?

My pope's critics, including cardinals, are increasingly shaking their heads at his stubbornness. Why would he not step down, considering that his body no longer accommodates his mind? His face looks puffed up, he is shaking uncontrollably, saliva is dripping from the corner of his mouth. Often he can't finish a sentence.

Well now, Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist, can't speak at all anymore, and nobody suggests that he should stop entrusting his important thoughts by arduous means to his computer. And John Paul II, whose mind is as clear as ever, has an additional mission Hawking does not have. It's called discipleship.

"Christ did not come down from the cross either," the pope keeps saying. So he bears his cross, for all to see, especially the young who come to surround this severely handicapped old man by the hundreds of thousands wherever they can.

For he represents to them the opposite of the wishy-washy aberrations of postmodernity with its ever-shifting "truth" claims. He is, if you pardon this very Protestant remark, the "Here I stand" kind of a guy we need as much as ever in the Church. That's why has been making disciples of millions of young people around the globe.

That's why he is my pope -- and why I don't have to be a Roman Catholic to claim him as mine.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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