Pope John Paul II's death today was a blessing to this man who struggled publicly for several years with chronic illness and the debility of old age. Watching the news reports on TV reminded me of the two visits to the Vatican I have made in my lifetime.
On both occasions, as the descendant of many generations of Scots Presbyterians, I was astounded by the grandeur of St. Peter's Church and Square. Used to worship in very plain spaces with little decoration and sparse symbolism beyond the empty cross, my head spun with the artwork, decoration, and luxurious appointments of the immense building. I was torn between awe for the ancient tradition it represented and a gut-level understanding of why that tradition was divided by the Protestant Reformation.
Already praiseworthy remembrances of John Paul II are filling the airwaves, the internet, and the print media. While Protestants may not join their Catholic friends in calling him the "Holy Father" and may not accept his traditional theology, they do admire his unyielding advocacy of his faith, his opposition to the Communists in Eastern Europe, and the integrity of his life .
There is still a sharp divide between Catholics and Protestants on matters of church organization and some doctrinal issues. ( For a recent analysis of some of these issues from my denomination, see "The Successor to Peter" a paper for discussion by the PCUSA, November 16, 2000.)
But there is unity in their shared belief in Jesus Christ and the need for the witness of His church in the world. The role of the Pope in the Catholic Church gives him the unique ability to command the attention of the world as a spokesman for the faith --there is no equivalent office in any other denomination.
For most Protestants, the chief administrative office of the church has been deliberately designed to make it as un-Popelike as possible. There are no lifetime appointments: often these officers are chosen by both laity and clergy and the term of office is limited. There is no power to speak "ex-cathedra" and bind the church with that pronouncement. Authority to make policy is shared with assemblies of clergy and laity. The advantage of these arrangements is that no one person has unquestioned authority over the church. The disadvantage is that the church's message comes from many voices rather than one.
John Paul II was an effective witness to the world of his faith in Jesus Christ. By that I mean that his message was clear and uncompromising. For Protestants, the challenge is to become equally effective witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church as we understand it.