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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Online Exclusive

The Pope's "Witness to Hope"

The following is a letter written to the Seattle Pacific University community by President Philip W. Eaton on April 5, 2005.

With the passing of Pope John Paul II, I would like to call us all to reflect on the life, the work, and the witness of this great Christian leader. May we grieve with our Catholic brothers and sisters, those on our faculty and staff and among our students, and mourn with the whole world. The world has lost an important voice in our midst, a voice of moral and spiritual authority, a great witness to the hope we find in the gospel. I suspect even in our loss and our remembering, we can renew our own efforts to shine the light of Christ into a broken world.

I am decidedly Protestant, of course, and have no personal authority to write anything about this Pope. But this man, his life, teachings, and witness, have made a huge impression on me. Over time I have read a great deal of his writing. George Weigel's biography of the Pope, A Witness To Hope, is an influential book in my life. I have observed his travels and watched his actions and find in him a compelling witness to the gospel, a profound understanding of the shaping of culture, a man of ideas who was most eager to be a leader of the people.

His name was Karol Wojtyla, born in Poland in 1920. He was a poet (let us remember), a philosopher, a professor, a man of great learning, a man who loved music, theater, and hiking. He spoke seven languages fluently and knew twelve with proficiency. He was a man of the world, a leader among the people, traveling throughout his papacy to 129 nations. He loved young people and seemed to connect with them with such winsomeness and charisma, even as he aged into infirmity. He wrote and spoke with eloquence and courage, wit and depth and playfulness.

He grew into maturity under brutal Nazi destruction and oppression, only later to know the iron fist and the culture of lies of Soviet domination of Poland . Such a childhood gave shape to his theology and his commitments: he was on the side of the suffering, the oppressed, and the poor; he believed above all in the sanctity of life and the dignity of each person; he was on the side of peace and reconciliation; he sought to be a unifier, across the boundaries of ancient divisions within the Christian church and with other traditions of faith.

He shaped what George Weigel, in a recent issue of First Things, calls a “Slavic view of history,” “the conviction that the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic ... history is driven, over the long haul, by culture — by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.” This was the territory of the Pope's writing, speaking, and ministering throughout the world. From this man and such a view of the world, we who aspire to engage the culture and change the world have much to learn.

Everyone tries to put this Pope in a box, but that seems quite impossible. He made conservatives uncomfortable when he stood firm against the war in Iraq , spoke out against capital punishment, and critiqued American consumerism. In like manner, he drove liberals nuts when he held steady against abortion, euthanasia, ordination of women, sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality.

But then I like one of his quotes: “The world, tired of ideology, is opening itself to the truth. The time has come when the splendor of this truth has begun anew to illuminate the darkness of human existence.” For those of us caught up in the intellectual currents of our postmodern moment, about which this Pope was acutely aware, where the notion of truth is problematic and where ideology is too often the default lens through which we view the world, we might reflect together on how we recover and become guided by this transcendent “splendor of truth.”

In all of the press coverage over the last few days, so many have tried to secularize this man, or perhaps to pull him into some political agenda. He will defy these efforts, I think, indeed because he was a man of abiding faith in Jesus Christ, a man deeply immersed in the teaching and tradition of his church, a man who entered into profound personal prayer for an hour a day, a man who called us all to reflect constantly on “the mystery of Christ.” “Be not afraid, and open the doors to Christ,” he says.

Let me end by sharing a few quotes I have collected over the years:

Christian morality, he says, strives toward “a universal affirmation of good.” This “can be nothing but extraordinarily demanding. Good, in fact, is not easy; it is always the ‘hard road' of which Christ speaks in the Gospel. Therefore, the joy of good and the hope of its triumph in man and in the world do not exclude fear for this good, for the disappearance of this hope.”

In March 2000, on the Pope's historic trip to the Middle East , standing where Jesus is said to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount, he had this to say: “Jesus said ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.' And yet there is another voice that draws our attention: It is the voice which says, ‘Blessed are the proud and violent, those who prosper at any cost, who are unscrupulous, pitiless, devious, who make war, not peace, and persecute those who stand in their way.' This voice seems to make sense in a world where the violent are often triumphant and the devious seem to succeed.”

Quoting Andre Malraux, the Pope offered this prediction: “The twenty-first century will be a century of religion or it would not be at all.”

In the Pope's April 2, 2002, Easter message, he called on “Christian communities on every continent” to work to end the “dramatic spiral of the imposition of will by force and killings that bloody the Holy Land, plunged again in these very days into horror and despair. No one can remain silent and inactive — no political or religious leader. It seems that war has been declared on peace.”

Thank you for listening. Let us join the world in mourning the loss of this “humble giant,” as Cardinal Egan called him on Sunday morning. But let us look to the future with great hope and optimism in part because we are called to be a “witness to hope.”


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