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John Paul II, R.I.P

By W. James Antle III
web posted April 4, 2005

"Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years." So said the Rev. Billy Graham in a statement released after the pope's death, a tribute to the fallen head of the Roman Catholic Church from the world's best-known evangelical Protestant.

It's just one of many remarkable things that people of my generation take for granted when they think of the papacy. Born two years before Karol Jozef Wojtyla was elected, I have no memory of any other pope.

Consequently, there are millions of people in my age cohort who find it difficult to imagine a pope who was not admired, even beloved, by conservative Protestants. Or who did not travel widely, even to non-Christian lands. Or who did not meet with presidents, welcomed even at the White House. Or who did not make good use of modern technology when transmitting timeless truths.

I was in the Boston area for a family gathering to celebrate the 90th birthday of my devout Roman Catholic grandmother when the pontiff finally succumbed to what seemed to be an endless list of physical ailments. It was as appropriate a place to be when the time came as any in the United States. Bostonians often tell one another where they live by naming not just their neighborhood and street address, but also their parish. As the pope's life slowly ebbed, old ladies who "pahk" their "cahs" huddled around television sets watching the seemingly endless coverage.

The Boston Herald ran a multi-page spread, filled with reminiscences from such locals as former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican (and three-term mayor of Boston) Ray Flynn and picture of the pope's 1979 visit to Boston. It was a bittersweet occasion in an archdiocese that has in recent years been in the news struggling with scandal.

The local television coverage was also as intense as if a native son of Boston had died. A procession of Catholic public officials, some with the surname Kennedy, shared their fond remembrances of the pope and his legacy. They were joined by a Mormon Republican governor who spoke to reporters about John Paul II on the front lawn of his home.

Politicians in Boston and throughout the country may have offered appropriately warm words, but the pope had at various points in time caused most of them discomfort. For some, it was because of his uncompromising defense of the unborn child. Others had to sit in silence while he condemned materialism. Many on the right who closely identified with John Paul II were shaken by his stern criticism of the war in Iraq.

Yet the political class had seen the strength of John Paul II's witness time and again. Writing in the Toronto Sun, Eric Margolis noted that the "Polish warrior Pope delivered the ultimate answer to Stalin's sneering taunt: ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?'" This pope surely stands alongside Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as a pivotal actor in the West's Cold War victory, the triumph that brought Stalin's monstrous empire to an end.

John Paul II is not without his critics. Some were angry that he would not bend the rules of a 2,000-year-old church to conform to the progressive conceits of the day – secularism, radical egalitarianism, the sexual revolution. Others were traditionalists who felt that he was instead co-opted by contemporary big ideas, overly ecumenical and insufficiently defensive of orthodoxy. It was during his papacy that we discovered the full extent of the sexual abuse crisis in the American church.

But there is even more praise. The encomiums continue to pour in, many from abler pens than mine: John Paul II, slayer of communist dragons, champion of the poor and the powerless, peacemaker between faiths and, for 1 billion Catholics, the vicar of Christ on earth. For many, including this Protestant, it means something to simply point out that he was the Pope – and that it will take time for us to intuitively identify that title with any other.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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