Pope John Paul II: Voice for Life and Hope
Posted: 04 April 2005
This weekend saw the passing of a man who showed great conviction in an age of convenience and compromise.
Pope John Paul II believed not only in giving strong leadership to his flock, the largest part of the world’s Christian community. He also felt that the church, in an age of ethical confusion, has a duty to provide a strong yet hopeful moral compass to the wider world.
His stance on issues like contraception, abortion and euthanasia were not popular with liberal sections of either the mass media or society in general. Yet they demonstrated a consistent commitment to the notions that all life is sacred and the strong are responsible to care for the weak.
Many in the Christian community, Catholic and otherwise, have also held some of his statements up to question.
Yet few Christians would argue that John Paul was not a powerful voice for the protection of human life at every level.
Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the town of Wadowice, 35 miles south-west of the Polish capital Krakow, his commitment to life may have been shaped not only by his Catholic doctrine and personal Christian faith. He suffered great personal losses early in life.
His sister died before he was born, his mother died as a result of heart and kidney problems just after his ninth birthday and his adult brother died of scarlet fever when he was 12 years of age. He was well aquainted with death.
He also witnessed firsthand the pain of war and this shaped his lifelong opposition to warfare.
Already, John Paul's pontificate has been widely praised for its scope and reach.
He was the most travelled Pope in history -- aided, of course, by vast improvements in long-distant travel, but also by his decision to become a leader who connected with people the world over.
He was also a very athletic man, known in his early years for his skill on skis and for the long walks he liked to take. In his final days and weeks people could see traces of that physical fortitude in the way in which he dealt with illness.
In his homeland, John Paul was seen as a father to the nation. During his years as a priest, then a bishop and Archbishop, he constantly made his presence felt in defiance of the ruling Communist regime. Its leadership had consistently tried to stamp out Poland's strong Catholic faith and its Christian heritage.
He made a point of visiting his homeland not long after being crowned Pope, at the relatively young age of 58. Most authorities, including Lech Valesa, saw his presence and his calls for determination and hope among the people as key contributors to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe.
There may be many ways to appreciate this man. For me, though, the greatest lesson of John Paul’s life and work, for all Christians, is that the church can and must play a role as a conscience voice in society – mixing strong convictions with positive and persistent hope.
His life also demonstrated that a consistent walk of righteousness, combined with humility, can and does inspire hope for the future.
The church is not at its best when it tries to play moral policeman for the rest of society. Christians cannot assume that other people will always appreciate their views on right and wrong, whatever those views might be -- and they do vary on different issues.
However, the church must take seriously the call of Christ to be the 'salt of the earth' and a light to the world.
Many sections of society will perhaps always be resistant to the voice of the church as a conscience. In part, this is because we are all fallen human beings and prefer not to hear about obedience to a higher design.
Sometimes, though, people resist moral challenge from the church more because they see a church which appears to be divorced from real needs.
The picture Jesus gives of salt and its influence contains a sobering lesson for us.
In the Middle East of Jesus time, salt was used both as a preserver of food and as a means of flavouring. Salt was not contained in small shakers as it is today, applied to food at the table.
Large blocks of salt were stored with the food, so that through close contact with the salt food was kept fresh and given a pleasing taste.
The metaphor Jesus gives us suggests that part of the role of the church is to preserve righteousness in the world -- or at least to shine a light in the darkness -- and to flavour society in a way that is pleasing to God.
To fulfil that role, the church must be in direct contact with the culture it is called to influence.
Separation, in the biblical sense, is quite a different thing from isolation. Separation refers not to being cut off from real people; it suggests an inner commitment to being in the world but not of it.
This separation involves a decision to maintain purity of heart towards God and other people while actively engaging with an often godless and selfish age.
The church should not see itself as a ruling voice which gives discipline by divine right, but as a serving influence whose positive and God-favoured example shows the world a better and higher way to walk through life.
No man leaves this world with a perfect record -- except the Lord himself. Every man leaves a mixed legacy to some degree. But Pope John Paul maintained his dignity, his sense of righteousness, his calls for a positive view of human life and, above all, his love for and devotion to Christ.
One servant of God has gone home. The call stays with us who remain. More than ever, we must live and walk as Jesus would before an often darkened, embattled and rebellious world.
We must go on proclaiming righteousness linked with faith and forward-looking hope.
(The Future is X, the new book by Mal Fletcher, is now available in e-Book form.)