Cover Story

A Shepherd and A statesman

"A Shepherd and A statesman" Continued...

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

He also was a promoter of ecumenism, although ultimately he was unwilling to bridge the gap between Catholicism and Reformational Christianity. And this month he came down loudly and clearly on the side of conservatives in the Episcopal Church's conflict over a gay bishop and same-sex unions.

Many in his flock embrace him as a faithful shepherd, a compassionate pastor. Fluent in at least eight languages, he traveled to more than 100 countries (a papal record) to deliver the church's message and to shore up its members. A would-be assassin's bullet in 1981 and surgical operations didn't slow him down. Advancing age and Parkinson's disease did that. When Vatican insiders early this month suggested to reporters that he was dying, he summoned his reserves for one more trip-to Naples, where he was greeted by tens of thousands. So much for rumors, he seemed to imply impishly.

In 1960 he authored Love and Responsibility, a still significant book on marriage and sexuality. As pope, he wrote numerous scholarly essays and issued important encyclicals.

When still a bishop, he was a behind-the-scenes architect of Vatican II, the wide-ranging church council convened in 1962 by John XXIII and closed by Paul VI in 1965. The council drew up reforms aimed at helping the church come to grips with the modern world, and to lead Catholics into spiritual renewal. There were new freedoms. Contemporary touches enlivened church services, but the Mass remained at the core.

As a result of Vatican II, the Bible for many Catholics became an open book for the first time. This development gave rise in 1967 to the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. For years, it was the most vibrant and significant movement throughout the worldwide church. Through it, millions "rediscovered Jesus" and countless numbers of people discovered Him for the first time. John Paul II took delight in the spiritual transformations taking place, but also took steps to make sure the charismatic renewal remained under Rome's oversight.

Theological liberals in the church saw in Vatican II an opportunity to forward their agendas. But John Paul II, who reportedly had authored two primary Vatican II documents, dismayed the liberals by defining the boundaries of Vatican II and trying to keep people focused on its spiritual priorities. That wasn't good enough for hard-line conservatives who had opposed the reforms in the first place. They wanted to see Vatican II scrapped and the church "restored" to an earlier, traditional mode. The pope adhered to his middle course.

In some matters, John Paul II had to endure disappointment. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he was dismayed to see many Eastern Europeans shed repression-refined values and commitment to the greater good soon after liberty came.

The pope found a church in shambles in 1978: Huge losses of priests and nuns had impaired its ministry. Twenty-five years later, the worldwide shortage of priests persists. Those serving are aging, and seminaries see decreasing enrollments. Catholic schools are trying to cope with the loss of hundreds of thousands of nuns.

The clergy sex-abuse scandal in America and elsewhere hurt: John Paul II, an advocate of sexuality based on biblical standards, was betrayed by hundreds of his own priests. He lamented to visiting priests from the Philippines this month that the transgressions of a relative few have tainted the work of the entire clergy. He issued an apology to victims of abuse, but critics said he should have come down sooner and harder on the abusers and the bishops who shielded them.

His strenuous effort to reach out and end estrangement with the Russian Orthodox Church over church members and property remains a matter of unfinished business. So does the debate between evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians-but overall many Catholic and Protestant conservatives give Karol Wojtyla more pluses than minuses. Although he adheres to traditional Catholic teaching, Catholic scholar Michael Novak and Anglican theologian J.I. Packer see him confronting a post-Christian culture in much the same way that some evangelical Protestant thinkers do.

Catholic philosopher Eduardo Echeverria notes that for both John Paul II and such evangelicals, "Christian spirituality is based on the biblical affirmation that 'Jesus Christ is Lord' (Philippians 2:11) over the whole of life, including culture, and that the whole of life is under God's blessing, judgment, and redeeming purposes." John Paul II's intellectual vigor, compassion, and love for people will be needed by his successor-and by all of us.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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