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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

A Protestant's view of Pope John Paul II

BY ROSE RUSSELL

AFTER a week of reading about Pope John Paul II, I am moved by this peace-loving, forgiving man who exercised the great power and authority in his hands with humility and sensitivity.

Throughout the week there have been numerous discussions about the "what ifs" regarding Pope John Paul II, who died a week ago today at the Vatican at 84. What if he had embraced a culture of death instead of a culture of life, had not been forgiving or a peacemaker, had not cared about suffering people, or had not reached out to non-Catholics?

Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was destined to become influential and beloved. He was charismatic without the usual hallmarks of pomp that ordinarily surround such self-absorbed, self-confident personalities.

He made others feel as though they mattered, not as though they should have been glad to have been in his presence, because, after all, he was the Pope.

He didn't acquire his leadership skill by reading books giving 10 steps to becoming a great leader. His abilities were God-given. Even as a boy, his classmates noticed his piety, a quality not diminished in his rise to the papacy.

I am Protestant, so I differ on numerous theological points with Catholics. However, as the late Pope demonstrated in reaching out to Jews and Muslims in the name of friendship and world peace, one can move past differences and embrace commonalities without compromising one's convictions.

The first Polish Pope played a significant role in ending communism. He personally knew what it was like to live in a totalitarian society shaped by war and genocide.

"He saw the Shoah on the ground in Poland. He didn't read about it, he didn't see movies about it. He was there," said Rabbi James Rudin, emeritus director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Without recounting his whole life, a few highlights are especially insightful about Pope John Paul II. When he visited the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, he became the first Roman Catholic Church leader to do so. He had also expressed sorrow for the Jews' suffering, including the Holocaust, at the hands of Christianity.

If ever there was a lesson in practicing what one preaches, it was his ability to forgive the Turkish terrorist who tried to assassinate him 24 years ago.

Forgiveness is central to Christianity, but forgiving is not always easy to do. It requires the help of God.

When the Pope visited Mehmet Ali Agca in his Rome prison cell in 1983, his actions spoke to the importance of forgiveness and the value of human life.

These qualities in John Paul didn't suddenly appear when he became Pope. The story about the young seminarian rescuing Edith Zierer when she 13 is telling; it is a story with interesting similarities to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a teenager in 1945, she had escaped from the Nazi camp Czestochowa in her native Poland. Off in search of her family - who had died during the Holocaust - she sat two days, tired and without food or water, at a train station.

As passersby ignored the young woman, who's now 74, Karol Wojtyla appeared, gave her food, his cloak, kept her company, and traveled with her as far as Krakow, where she departed, "because people started to ask why a priest was walking with a Jewish girl," she said later.

Clearly, the young seminarian didn't care what others thought. His compassionate heart was in the right place. He saw a soul in need, and he did what was necessary to help.

That's how Pope John Paul II saw the world: in need, and he did what he could, emphasizing peace, demonstrating forgiveness, underscoring the importance of life, taking steps toward freedom, and exercising God's love for humankind.



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