The non-stop television coverage of Pope John Paul II’s death and the retelling of his life as the final spark of his vibrant personality flickered and died has dramatically brought into focus the profound impact and significance of this man from Poland. From the unprecedented gathering of mourners –– kings and presidents, rich and poor –– it is clear that his influence extended far beyond the Catholic Church.
The response to the death of the pope –– more than 2 million are expected at his funeral –– proves the truth of the oft-repeated claim that there is a God-shaped vacuum inside each human being. The millions of people who have watched the television coverage or made pilgrimages to Rome to pay their last respects to the pope lying in state at St. Peter's Basilica are testimony to the yearning in people’s hearts for an example of someone passionately committed to loving the Lord God, undividedly, with heart, soul, and mind. Even those who disagreed with John Paul respected his spirituality and the conviction that would not bend in the face of disapproval and opposition.
What can evangelicals learn from a man who inspires such an outpouring of respect and affection? What can we learn from a man who, despite his age and old-fashioned commitment to the ancient truths of his faith, stirred the hearts of young people and rallied them in multiple nations around the world?
The pope embodied commitment and consistency. In an era rampant with scandals and hypocrisy, the pope was a leader whose integrity both challenged and inspired. He was a public figure whose life was a consistent embodiment of his faith. He was willing to put everything, including his life, on the line. His authority stemmed not just from his position at the head of the Catholic Church, but also from his inner strength and stances of moral integrity. During his papacy, the number of Catholics worldwide doubled.
The pope was both moral and intellectual. In an era when pseudo-sophistication reigned, John Paul developed deep intellectual roots that informed his faith and provided a strong rationale for his moral stances. The pope was not willing to settle for what Ralph Woods’ described in First Things as “saccharine substitutes for the hard-thinking that the Christian faith requires.” He combined spiritual depth with intellectual rigor. He published 14 tightly-reasoned encyclicals on social, theological and moral issues that became a strong voice for Judeo-Christian values and Biblical truth in an increasingly secularized and coarsening culture.
The pope related across generations. Those who embrace the cliché that everything has to be novel in order to appeal to the next generation, could learn from this pope whose winsome ways drew youth to him and to faith. John Paul related to young people with genuine concern coupled with an enthusiastic spirit, a sharp sense of humor and quick wit. In so doing, he embodied and interpreted faith in fresh and vital ways for a whole new generation of believers. His background in drama taught him the power of image-making but he did so without sacrificing his dignity or crossing the line to embrace the latest fads. His piety, however, was not for show.
The pope was willing to go against the tide of popular opinion. For over a quarter of a century, John Paul, an essentially humble priest, stood fast against the tide of secularism in uncompromising support of the fundamental tenets of the faith. He protected the vulnerable –– including the unborn, by consistently opposing abortion –– and he stood up to the powerful who sought to replace Christian dogma and traditional standards of morality with trendy ideology generated by mere human imagination. Those who are prone to be swept along with cultural trends in their frantic efforts to be relevant could learn much from this pope who proved that conviction is more appealing than contemporary repackaging of the faith.
The pope made holiness manly. Many of today’s generation have never seen holiness manifested in manly demeanor. They think of believers as weak wimps in contrast to the proud swaggering behavior of worldly non-religious men. This pope, even when frail and limited by Parkinson’s disease, was resolutely masculine.
In a world where so many “believers” are unwilling to “bend the knee” before the Almighty, the pope was a man who spent at least 4 hours a day in prayer. When the world around him was demanding that religion be watered down to conform to the postmodern worldview, he challenged believers to a more rigorous faith. In a culture more responsive to a gospel of prosperity, he challenged Catholics to reject materialism and lifted up a vision of sacrifice and service. He issued a high calling and people responded. Out of the depths of rock-solid character, this was a man who, even when stooped and palsied, spoke with authority . . . and the whole world listened.
Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow at Concerned Women for America