A Baptist Looks at the Pope

Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit the Holy Land since the establishment of the state of Israel. That highly publicized event prompted this column about my encounter with Roman Catholicism. Most of what I wrote about him I would gladly write today about Pope Francis.

Pope John Paul II is making his first visit to the Holy Land—to Jordan, Israel, and places occupied by Palestinians who aspire to nationhood. If I were living in the Middle East, I would be a part of the crowd that reaches to touch and strains to see.


I am one Baptist who holds the pope in high regard.


Years ago I was a student at the graduate school of Notre Dame University. That school is about as Catholic as you can get, or so it seemed to me. I stayed in the St. Moreau Seminary dormitory, attended daily mass, and took three classes, one of which was Pastoral Theology: Reconciliation taught by Father Enda McDonough of Ireland. He said repeatedly, “Reconciliation is built upon what people have in common, not what they hold as different.”


The pope and I have a lot in common.


We are both humans; we are men; we are Christians. We both like to travel, we like books, and we like people. He honors and adores Jesus Christ just as I do. He reads essentially the same Bible and worships the living God who is creator, sustainer, and judge of the world.


He thinks, as I do, that we should live godly, sober lives, act kindly and justly in all things, and maintain an attitude of praise and thanksgiving. One day, the pope and I will be in heaven together, both by the grace of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.


All that commonality explains why I think John Paul is a good man. He is an effective leader and a powerful representative for Christ. It is hard to imagine a church leader more global in his influence, more energetic in his leadership, more passionate in his pastoral interest in all the peoples of the world.


However, not everything he does sits well with this Baptist.


A few years ago he recovered from a gunshot wound. I was grateful and gave thanks to God. He gave most of the credit to Mary, the mother of Jesus. I am still mystified by her role in everything.


When professors Hans Kung and Charles Curran said things a little too radical for the pope, they were stripped of their status as professor of Catholic theology. That’s too bad—it is bad for the Catholic Church, it is bad for the world, it is bad for the cause of Christ. The pope and his church need not fear dissent.


But all in all, John Paul is a winner. He preaches peace and reconciliation. He has taken steps to bridge the gap between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and also between Christians and Jews. He has allowed his representatives to have constructive conversations with Pentecostals. He condemns the materialism of the West and the atheism of the East.


John Paul defends life. It was wonderful when on his trip to St. Louis he intervened on behalf of death row inmate, pleading for his life.


The pope is a smart man. I have read some of what he as written—poetry, prayers, sermons, and devotionals. He has a keen mind and a warm heart.


I love it when he travels the world and stoops at every place to kiss the ground. You get the idea that he loves people everywhere.


I would like to have dinner with the pope. I would like to teach him to play Rook and croquet. I would take him to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, to Gethsemane Monastery near Bardstown, and to Rupp Arena in Lexington to see the Wildcats play basketball.


But all that won’t ever happen. He is getting old. He is not feeling well. He has important things to do, people to see, prayers to say, and books to write. So I wish him Godspeed.


I pray God will prosper him in all he does for Jesus Christ and that everywhere he goes people might see and hear not a Catholic but a Christian, not a pope but a gospel preacher, not a saint but a sinner just like me, saved by the amazing grace of God and called into the ministry of reconciliation and righteousness.


God bless you, John Paul.