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Papal Legacy



After twenty-six years of unwavering leadership, Pope John Paul II, revered head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, finally breathed his last on April 2, 2005. Supreme ruler of Europe’s only remaining absolute monarchy, the deceased Pope was indisputably the most powerful religious leader in the world. Rising from relative obscurity to become the first non-Italian pope to be elected in four centuries, Polish born Karol Wojtyla elevated the papacy to celebrity status and rapidly advanced the remaking of Catholicism that had commenced with Pope Paul VI in the groundbreaking Vatican II conference of 1964.

So influential was the pontiff that England’s Prince Charles–the future Supreme Head of the Anglican Church–postponed his much publicized wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles so that he could attend the funeral of the man who represents a religious system that is the historical rival to his own. Prince Charles was joined by heads of state from at least forty other nations along with tens of millions of mourners who are making the pilgrimage to get a final glimpse of the man that multitudes worship as the “Holy Father.”

A Kinder Gentler Papacy

When he succeeded John Paul I–who had mysteriously died after occupying the office for a mere 34 days–few could have imagined the impact this relatively young Polish Pope would have on the world. It did not take long for him to win the hearts of millions when just three years after his coronation, he recovered from a near-fatal wound inflicted by a bullet from the gun of Turkish fanatic, Mehmet Ali Agca. He further endeared himself to the public when he visited his would-be assassin in an Italian jail and offered him forgiveness. With his growing popularity and unparalleled influence, he managed to persuade the political leaders of his native Poland to end the restrictive system of totalitarian communism, and continued to agitate change until the world witnessed the demise of the notorious Eastern Bloc.

When the rest of the world seemed afraid of President Bush, he even chastised America and Britain for their invasion of Iraq. In addition to his efforts to transform political systems, John Paul II also sought to build bridges between religions. Not only was he the first pope in history to enter a mosque, but his tireless efforts to bring peace in the Middle East have led many Muslims to ditto the sentiment of Sheik Salah Keftaro, a leading Islamic Cleric, who recently remarked, “Muslims and Christians alike have lost the pope.”

As it relates to Christian unity, the late Pope’s professed tolerance attracted Lutherans and Anglicans to move towards shared communion. His pluralistic evangelistic strategy also helped to capture the “scientific” mind when in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he argued that there was no discrepancy between evolutionary theories and the biblical account of origins.

Steeped in Tradition

I joined the millions around the globe who applauded the accomplishments of John Paul II. In an age when many professed Christian leaders pander for popular approval, the late Pope championed the cause of the oppressed, disfranchised, and underprivileged. In an era when vengeful world leaders revel in war, the Vatican monarch vied for peace. In spite of his failure to fully address the problematic pedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, he will be remembered as a man who made a difference.

Notwithstanding, I must admit that my applause is somewhat calculated. Although Pope John Paul II achieved a degree of success in building bridges across political, religious and ideological gulfs, he was unflinching when it came to Roman Catholic tradition. In spite of the rapid growth of the Catholic church and the diminishing number of clergy, he refused to listen to the growing number of priests and theologians who wish to make celibacy optional and include women in positions of leadership. He was also unmoved in his position that the use of condoms is a mortal sin, even if they could reduce the risk of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus on the heavily populated African continent–the place in which the church is experiencing the most rapid growth. Further, in spite of his inclusive policies, he still viewed the Roman Catholic Church as the exclusive gateway to the Kingdom of God.

A Word of Caution

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that everything the former Pope did should be viewed with suspicion. However, as I witness the immense response to his passing, I feel a need to express a word of caution to those who have not thought about the implications of fully embracing the religious system he represented. John Paul II did many great things for humanity, but he did so under the guise of a hybrid religion that has long been estranged from biblical Christianity. While I am a firm believer that practical Christianity is more meaningful to God than ethereal religiosity, I maintain that biblical truth does matter for the Christian.

Having studied the biblical teaching on idolatry and the state of the dead, I shudder when I hear mourners offering intercessory prayers to the Virgin Mary, Joseph and other dead “saints” who have long decomposed and await resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18). When I consider the Bible’s testimony about itself as the final written revelation, I cringe when tradition shaped cardinals suggest that popes have the authority to amend and nullify the written word of God (Rev 22:18-20). When I evaluate the exclusive claims the Bible makes about Jesus, I am saddened to see the multitude of worshipers who honor their clergy in ways that should only be reserved for God (1 Cor 1:12-17). God accepts all worship that is offered with sincerity, but he especially seeks those who will worship him in spirit “and” in truth (Jn 4:23-24). He especially seeks those who will worship Him on his terms, and not according to the dictates of human made religion (Mt 15:8-9).

As you determine to be faithful to His word and seek to establish your own legacy in this life, always remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.


Keith Augustus Burton is coordinator of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. This column is the second in a series of obituaries.

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