My Pope

April 4, 2005

A few in the Bloggernacle are discussing and rightly hailing Pope John Paul II. My post here today is not meant to be a copycat attempt or even an instance of following the example of the mega-blogs. Rather, I have had a very heavy heart these last few days, beginning with the Pope’s heart failure last week. I have always considered Pope John Paul II my Pope, and have always been interested in his view and in his teachings. This might come as a surprise to some given my views on ecumenicalism in relationships between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Christian churches.[1]

But it is true: I have never doubted Pope John Paul II’s sincerity in his mission as the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church. In that role, he had stewardship over approximately one billion Catholics. Indeed, because he was the Pope for my entire cognizant life, he was more than a Pope to me; rather, his face signified in my mind’s eye the very office of Pope.[2] I am certain that God must be very pleased with John Paul II’s faithful stewardship over His many children. Additionally, the Pope set a standard for moral leadership through his Christlike and childlike sincerity and humility that can be an example to all leaders in the world. His Christian consistency was very moving to me, and I always sensed his devotion to Christ whenever his words appeared in the press or I saw his picture in the media. And even the Pope’s teachings, which could be described as applied New Testament Christianity, have been very influential in the course of twentieth-century history. Some of his stems from his upbringing by a pious father. The Pope once noted of his father that

[b]y profession he was a soldier and, after my mother’s death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.

This is a striking example of humble and sincere devotion; to pray alone in the middle of the night is not to pray on the street corner for the recognition of one’s piety in the eyes of others. It seems that he was raised of a goodly father.

Pope John Paul II’s decision, not mandated by his father, to enter the priesthood has had far reaching effects. One commentator, a professor at Notre Dame, commented on some of NBC’s coverage on Saturday night that this is the most influential Pope in the last five hundred years. Another commenter noted that this is the first Pope since Peter (who really was not a Pope but rather the senior Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ) who grew up with Jews. Pope John Paul II was certainly unique in his promotion of faith for faith’s sake, regardless of whether that was the Catholic faith (although he was certainly interested in strengthening and expanding the Catholic fold). The story of the Pope’s life is moving and indeed seems guided by Providence to land him in the papacy as the right person at the exact right time. Some of the things which I most admire about his work and influence include the following:

– He lived under two totalitarian regimes: he was forced into servitude as the Nazis conquered Poland and he labored in his priesthood under the repression of Poland’s Communist government after World War II.
– His early visit in 1979 to his native Poland in which he leant support to the Solidarity movement and thereby achieved one of the earliest advances against the totalitarian grip of Communism was monumental. Nearly a third of all Poles attended his visit at that time, certainly a cause for worry for Poland’s Communist government.
– He championed human rights throughout his career and calling, basing the necessity of human rights on his strikingly clear and consistent pro-life views. He believed that both the innocent baby and the convicted killer had a right to life. He stood up consistently as a voice on behalf of the sanctity of human life.
– After the assassination attempt on his life in 1982, from which he never fully recovered, the Pope taught the world about Christ’s true doctrine of forgiveness and love when he visited the would-be assassin in prison, prayed with him, and forgave him. The cynical might call this a mere PR stunt, but I believe it was sincere. Pope John Paul II seemed without guile.
– He loved the children and blessed them wherever he went.
– He offered Christian guidance in all matters to all world leaders, and visited them in their own lands.
– In 2000, and then periodically between 2000 and 2004, he offered an official apology for the abominable actions of the Catholic Church in the past two millenia and asked forgiveness of those abused by such actions.

Through these and many other actions during his long papacy, John Paul II greatly influenced the entire world, offering guidance for world events, strengthening the faith of hundreds of millions, and teaching about Jesus Christ.

He was not only a talented spiritual leader on the world stage, but he was also a talented poet. Pope John Paul II’s poetry is another aspect of his life and work that I greatly admire. He wrote some of his early poems while a priest in Krakow under the pseudonym “Andrzej Jawien.” A few of his poems are collected online here. That site also refers to The Place Within – The Poetry of Pope John Paul II, translation and notes by Jerzy Peterkiewicz (Vaticiana, Vatican City: Random House, 1979, 1982).

One of the poems highlighted there is called “Material.” This poem is quite powerful, particularly the third stanza, which deals with the hands of toiling mankind:

Hands are the heart’s landscape. They split sometimes
like ravines into which an undefined force rolls.
The very same hands which man only opens
when his palms have had their fill of toil.
Now he sees: because of him alone others can walk in peace.
Hands are a landscape. When they split, the pain of their sores
surges free as a stream.
But no thought of pain–
no grandeur in pain alone.
For his own grandeur he does not know how to name.

These lines betray a hope within the Pope that “because of him alone others can walk in peace.” It is true that, as a humble servant, the Pope did not know how to name the grandeur with which the world would remember him. But the Pope knows who the real subject of this poem is as, upon closer scrutiny, one hears the voice of the Creator and Redeemer speaking directly with observations about the dignity of man’s life and work, even if it might seem futile and all drudgery:

Listen: the even knocking of hammers,
so much their own,
I project on to the people
to test the strength of each blow.
Listen now: electric current
cuts through a river of rock.
And a thought grows in me day after day:
the greatness of work is inside man.
Hard and cracked
his hand is differently charged
by the hammer
and thought differently unravels in stone
as human energy splits from the strength of stone
cutting the bloodstream, an artery
in the right place.
Look, how love feeds
on this well-grounded anger
which flows in to people’s breath
as a river bent by the wind,
and which is never spoken, but just breaks high vocal cords.
Passers-by scuttle off into doorways,
someone whispers: “Yet here is a great force.”
Fear not. Man’s daily deeds have a wide span,
a strait riverbed can’t imprison them long.
Fear not. For centuries they all stand in Him,
and you look at Him now
through the even knocking of hammers.

The “even knocking of hammers,” the productivity of mankind, the energy of work and invention, all testify to Him who created all people.

As a boy the future Pope memorized nineteenth-century poetry, including a poem by Slowacki called “The Slavic Pope,” a “prophetic poem about a pope from the East who ‘will not flee the sword, /Like that Italian./Like God, He will bravely face the sword…‘” But there had never been a Slavic Pope. Astonishingly, one of his own early poems, written long before Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, throws his own great influence as the world’s first Slavic Pope on the course of world events and on people’s faith during the twentieth century into stark relief. The poem, titled “The Armaments Worker,” begins bluntly with the line, “I cannot influence the fate of the world.” (hat tip to Die Welt, which refers to this poem’s German translation from Polish: “Der Rüstungsarbeiter” with the opening line of “Ich kann das Schicksal der Welt nicht beeinflussen“; the translation from German is my own). How ironic that line is when we look back at the life and work of Pope John Paul II!

[1] In all honesty, I believe such incredulity stems from a misunderstanding of my objections to the ecumenical project. I fully endorse efforts to reach out in friendship and Christian goodwill to members of other faiths and to fellowship them with the Saints, but the exclusive claims to authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot, I believe, be set aside for some greater agenda of friendship. Thus, no matter how friendly we endeavor to become, Latter-day Saints’ legitimate claim to the true priesthood authority of God by its very nature precludes ecumenicalism–which seeks to overcome schism on issues of doctrine and authority–as a viable solution to religious acrimony.

Ironically, one of my first introductions to ecumenicalism came in 1996, and perhaps the Pope, as ecumenical as he was in many respects, has played a role in some of my views on the ecumenical project. I was present in Berlin when the Pope visited that city in June of 1996. On that occasion, according to the Catholic World News, the Pope “overcame some of the strongest expressions of hatred the [then] 76-year-old Pontiff has ever faced in his reign,” when

[t]he Holy Father had red paint thrown at his vehicle, gays and lesbians cavorted in a virulent counter-protest while shouting lewd slogans, and opponents of the Church’s teachings on sexuality distributed condoms through the crowd that had come to see the Pope.

During this visit to Berlin in 1996, I saw the Pope speak on the subject of ecumenicalism. Although he was interested in ameliorating rifts between Christian sects, and between Christianity as a whole and other religions, the Pope reinforced Catholic authority and truth claims vis-à-vis Protestants:

Later, at a meeting with Protestant leaders, the Holy Father dispelled speculation that he would lift mutual censures put in place by Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation 450 years ago. “Fundamental problems about Luther’s views on faith, scriptures, tradition and the church have not yet been sufficiently clarified,” the Pontiff said. “We certainly cannot overlook his personal limits, despite his attention to the Word of God and his determination to follow the correct path of faith.”

This perspective strengthened my own desire not to budge on authority and doctrinal issues while at the same expressing a desire to be amiable and cooperative with those of other faiths.

[2] I must admit that I do not go so far as to accept the Pope’s priesthood as being authoritative in God’s eyes; my membership and belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entails a belief that true priesthood authority to act in the name of God must be imparted by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority to do so. I believe that this priesthood authority was lost from what became the Catholic Church in the period immediately following the death of Christ’s original Apostles and that the resurrected Peter, James, and John appeared to the prophet Joseph Smith and layed their hands on his head to convey this priesthood to him, thus restoring it to the world.