Those who know me are not surprised to learn that I sincerely admired Pope John Paul II for many years. At first, like many Protestants, I saw him only as the pope, thus as a person standing in some kind of opposition to my own Christian faith. After I began to grasp what I believed about the Creed’s affirmation regarding “one, holy, catholic church” I found my heart melted to love all Christians everywhere. It was not hard for me to love John Paul II when I spent time getting to know more about him and spoke with some who knew him. The real clincher was George Weigel’s masterful biography, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999). Karol Wojtyla loved Christ very deeply and was a monumental figure in the twentieth century. He also genuinely inspired people to live better lives.
John Paul II made his final public appearance two years ago last week, March 30, sitting in complete weakness on the balcony overlooking Vatican Square where thousands expressed their deep love for him. A few days later, on today’s date April 2, he passed into the presence of Christ his Lord. So, this weekend marks the second anniversary of those final momentous hours of this great man’s life. He died, as he had lived, in dependence upon Christ for his hope. (Anti-Catholics will insist that the pope can not be a Christian. My saying that he was a great Christian will invite their opposition. I believe that any fair-minded Christian, who carefully reads the witness that he faithfully bore to Christ throughout his long life, will draw the conclusion that this was a man of true faith.)
I decided to mark this weekend by viewing the superb video: Pope John Paul II. This three-hour feature-length film first aired on television in 2005. It is now available on DVD. It stars Cary Elwes (as a young Karol Wojtyla in Poland) and Jon Voight (as Pope John Paul II). Voight, who is an Academy Award recipient for a previous film, could actually pass for John Paul II in his features. He also mastered the late pope’s mannerisms well. Both men, in my judgment, do a superb job of portraying John Paul II faithfully in the film. (This film was made with the full cooperation of the Vatican.) It covers the whole life of John Paul II, from his early childhood, through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the the Communist takeover, right down to his final moments on earth.
John Paul was a courageous man, comfortable in himself and calmly assured of his faith. He was a true intellectual and a shepherd who loved people deeply. He often touched the lives of ordinary people with profound humility, as the film magnificently shows, especially in one deleted scene that I wish had been preserved. As I thought again about John Paul II I realized his true power lay in the two things marked his life: His sense of humor and genuine self-effacing manner and his profound intellect joined with a deep and real personal piety. These two qualities are often missing in the role-models evangelicals have provided for their own flocks. This is one reason for John Paul’s universal appeal, as it is with Billy Graham among evangelicals. John Paul lived well and suffered well, providing to many of us a faithful witness to Christ that brings us real hope that God can transform a powerful and prominent man into a truly humble Christian. (Perhaps it would be better to say that he was a truly humble man who happened to become the pope, much to his surprise, and the office never altered who he really was before God.)
Just this weekend a nun in France has reported that she was healed by praying to the deceased John Paul II. This miracle will now be investigated by the Vatican, through a rigorous process of study. Such a miracle becomes necessary in order to beatify John Paul II. This whole process is one that Protestant evangelicals rightly question given the lack of obvious biblical reasons for such a process. This remains one of those aspects of Catholicism that I find unnecessary at the very best.
Regardless of how you disagree with the idea of the papacy, and the present process of beatification, you can not deny the importance of this man to world affairs and religion in the late twentieth century. Whether you know a lot about John Paul II, or very little, you would also do well to see this film. The DVD edition includes some wonderful memories of John Paul II as well as four or five deleted scenes and some excellent cast interviews. (These clips were also worth seeing.) I commend this lavishly produced film to all. It presents John Paul II in a personal and most human way.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”