“The death of Pope John Paul II is a loss for humanity. He was the leader of the largest Christian church in the world and a moral leader.
“John Paul II stood against the immorality of communism and ensured that the Church would remain a bulwark of moral truth. He stood for the sanctity of life in a time where the culture of death has made steady advance in western civilization. His leadership, his voice, his compassion will be missed in the life of his Church and the wider world.”
That was Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian member of Congress, reacting to the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
And he was far from alone.
Franklin Graham. Pat Robertson. Richard Land.
They all expressed their gratitude for the life and service of Karol Wojtyla.
When John Paul II died, so many of us had our eyes glued to Rome, our knees bent in adoration for the great gift we had in this man and his very public witness in living and dying.
But that day he died, and in the hours and days after, I came to appreciate intensely that some Evangelical Protestants seemed to love him as a brother in Christ as much as so many Catholics.
John Paul II wasn’t just a Catholic hero.
And others didn’t simple appreciate him despite his Catholicism. He didn’t simply “transcend his religion” as some (others) put it at the time.
Apparently Jack Chick anti-papal tracts have little power in the face of loving, courageous, compelling leadership!
And a little evangelical Catholicism.
As my friend and colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death, commented at the time: it was “evidence of how the political struggle over abortion has reconfigured American religion, making possible first joint political action and then joint theological reflection that would have been unimaginable before.”
He is right, of course. The Gospel of Life had so very much to do with it. Especially as it seemed to emanate from his very being.
And in a whole new profound way in his final days. That Last Encyclical as George Weigel puts it.
But, watching the way even evangelicals have been attracted to unpacking (along with the rest of us) the Theology of the Body and so many of the treasures JPII left us, in the years since, I can’t help but it’s even more than that, albeit intimately related to the evil he homed in on.
John Paul II was ever-realistic. Whether we’re talking about Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body or the Soviet Union, he dealt in this world, he dealt with the evil of this world. He was evil’s target. And he faced it down. And he was amazingly saved from it. And forgave.
You can’t fake courage like John Paul II had. He had divine help but he knew where he was living. And he knew his call.
And you can’t help but be inspired by it. Because it both comes from and points to something far greater than you or I or any earthly power.
As we pray for Christian unity. As we pray for young people who are so often without role models of loving marriages. As we appear thirsting for leadership. We know that God gives us what we need. Because he gave us John Paul II, who we celebrate this week.
What we really thirst for. That water provides. John Paul II, humanity – thanks be to God, it’s an inspiration, it’s a hope! – and all, is a holy, fatherly, poster boy (if I may).
Not despite his Catholicism but because of it.
That’s why we love him. That’s why Catholics are far from alone.
That is why we keep unpacking what he left us, in his writing, in his witness. In the history. That is why we celebrate.
Evangelicals and Catholics, together.