John Paul II showed us, more than anything else, who our brothers and
sisters really are.
Pope Benedict XVI already has begun to make a major impact on the world scene since his election April 19th as the 265th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He has reached out to Muslims. He has some credibility with them because of his stated opposition to both the original Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He may have a tougher job reaching out to his fellow Germans, whose strong secular orientation renders them very suspicious of anyone who believes in absolutes.
But it is one aspect of the life of his predecessor, John Paul II, that I want to talk about. After his death, observers of geopolitics noted that he played a major role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Other eulogies praised him as a man who reached out to Jews, who spoke respectfully to Muslims, and who made strenuous efforts to heal Catholicism’s breach with the Orthodox tradition of Christianity and indeed with Protestantism itself.
First of all, I am not a Catholic. I hold firmly to the Protestant doctrines of justification by faith and the authority of the Bible alone in matters of faith and conduct. I do not believe in papal infallibility or the Catholic doctrine that, during the Christian communion service, the bread and the wine after consecration are literally changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ (instead of being simply reminders of His body and blood, as Protestants believe).
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the time has come to say publicly that vast numbers of Catholic bishops, priests and laypeople are indeed our Christian brothers.
When Billy Graham met John Paul II for the first time in 1981, the pope reached over, grabbed Graham’s hand (or, as one version states, his coat lapel) and said, “We are brothers.” What is most interesting about this story is that Billy Graham himself even told it–a fact that is noteworthy because fundamentalists with whom he had associated at the outset of his ministry would have sharply rebuked him for giving the pope any credence.
Many fundamentalist Christians in the United States and elsewhere deny to Catholics the right to claim access to heaven on the basis that their relationship with the Catholic church is as important as faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ alone.
Fundamentalists and others certainly have every right to espouse that view. But the question all of us must now face is quite simple: In a modern world that (in the case of Europe) is openly hostile to any Christian testimony at all or at best (in the case of the United States) is skeptical on a daily basis to the profession of Christian faith, do we have the luxury of maintaining hermetic walls of separation from Catholic believers?
I recall with some vividness the Chinese house church leader Zhang Rongliang saying that during his first imprisonment he had wonderful fellowship with fellow prisoners who were Catholic priests. (He is already several months into yet another imprisonment without trial because he is so threatening to China’s communist authorities.)
Chinese Protestant believers are well-known for their suspicion of Catholics. But wasn’t Zhang saying something important to us in making that comment?
Must we wait until we all are arrested before we reach out in fellowship to Catholics who are believers? We can surely have fellowship with them without conceding an iota of our reservations about their doctrinal positions. They can have fellowship with us too without ceasing to be faithful followers of their church’s doctrine.
The Bible enjoins us to “discern the body of Christ,” which means recognizing who the true believers are. The Lord Himself said that the way we would recognize other followers of Him would be by their fruits.
It seems to me that the fruits of godliness so overflowed from the life of John Paul II that he showed us, more than anything else, who our brothers and sisters really are. Let’s not wait until we are arrested to follow his example.
David Aikman is a former Time magazine senior correspondent who has reported from Jerusalem, Beijing, Moscow and dozens of nations. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.