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Protestants and Pope John Paul II
April 1, 2005

The death of a Pope is always a major marker in the life of the Catholic church worldwide.

But John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, says that the death of Pope John Paul II will also be a significant event for Protestants around the world.

"First of all," says Witvliet, "one billion of the world's two billion Christians are Catholics. So, the death of the leader of the Catholic Church is a significant, significant thing for all Christians, including Protestants, despite disagreements they may have with Rome."

But, Witvliet adds, there are things about this particular Pope that have impacted Protestants in a variety of other ways.

Witvliet, a Calvin graduate who has both a master's and a Ph.D. from Notre Dame, says many conservative Christians greatly admire Pope John Paul II because of his conservative stance on such social issues as abortion and homosexuality, while liberal Protestants are equally wary.

"He has certainly held the Catholic church on conservative ground on those social issues," says Witvliet.

But the Pope also moved the church to a more conservative position on theological and worship issues says Witvliet, renewing an emphasis on prayers to Mary and limiting the abilities of local congregations to adapt worship practices to local customs for example.

"In these areas," says Witvliet, "Pope John Paul II backed away from the spirit of reform associated with the Second Vatican Council."

Adds Witvliet: "Vatican II was enormously significant for Protestants, creating new avenues for Catholic-Protestant partnerships. As Catholic worship moved closer to Protestant practice, some Protestants became more open to the ritual and symbol associated with the Catholic Church. Even the recent growth of the use of symbols in the new 'Emerging Church Movement' among Protestants reflects these influences."

Indeed Witvliet says it will be interesting to see who the Pope's successor might be. He anticipates a struggle between the conservative and progressive branches of the Catholic church as discussions about a successor take place. Yet he notes that with a number of the Cardinals having been appointed by Pope John Paul the odds are good that the next Pope will be conservative.

"Although," Witvliet adds, "as with U.S. Supreme Court Justices sometimes the trajectory of a Pope's work can take surprising turns."

Witvliet says too that this Pope should not be remembered as a divisive presence in worldwide Christianity.

"Not at all," he says. "In fact I hope that this Pope will be remembered most for the remarkable things he did to bring forgiveness to a higher level of discussion in Christian circles. That will, I believe, be one of his lasting legacies and perhaps his greatest achievement as Pope."

Witvliet points to both the Pope's personal example of forgiveness and his corporate approach to forgiveness.

"On a personal level," he says, "the Pope forgave his would-be assassin - a remarkable act and an amazing testimony to Christian forgiveness. He also, in the year 2000, asked for forgiveness for the attitudes of many in the Catholic church during World War II with respect to its relationship with the Jewish people. This Pope acknowledged and dealt with this very difficult topic in a very public way."

Witvliet adds that this theme of forgiveness is backed up by Pope John Paul's own careful thinking about the nature of human suffering. He recalls a 1984 piece by the Pope called "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering," noting that many leading Protestant theologians have valued its emphasis on the "centrality and beauty of the cross” in thinking about God's response to human suffering.

Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland) began studying philosophy and literature at the university in Krakow in 1938. The Nazis closed it when they invaded in 1939. After deciding to become a priest, Wojtyla continued working in the quarry by day but studied secretly in the evenings with the Krakow cardinal because the Nazis had closed the seminaries.

He was ordained in 1946 at the age of 26 and went to Rome for advanced studies. In 1948, he returned to Poland. He became Poland's youngest bishop at 38, was promoted to Archbishop of Krakow in 1964 and made cardinal three years later by Pope Paul VI.

On October 16, 1978, Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. He was the 264th successor of St. Peter and, at 58, the youngest Pope for more than a century. His pontificate was the third-longest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Witvliet notes that discussions about the next Pope have mentioned the possibility of a non-European Pope. While he doesn't believe that that will happen this time around, he does believe that the Catholic church leads the discussion about the spread of Christianity on a global scale, and that Protestants can learn much from the Catholic church about the implications of the changing dynamics of Christianity around the world.

He points to a recent book co-edited by Calvin provost Joel Carpenter called The Changing Face of Christianity. "Even the fact that we are increasing aware of the radically different responses to Catholicism among Protestants around the world is a sign of this global reality," says Witvliet.

"Whether or not the next Pope is a non-European is in some ways not as important," he says, "as the fact the discussion is taking place. Someday there will be a non-European Pope. And that will have implications for Protestants as well."