Monday, April 11, 2005

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

This entry was originally published as an op-ed in the April 11, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

With the death of Pope John Paul II (shown right with Mother Teresa), chief prelate of the Roman Catholic Church and arguably one of the most influential heads of state of the last half century, the world lost one of its strongest voices for justice and inter-religious dialogue. From his stand against the brutality of Soviet Communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s to his fervent desire to see economic and social justice take root in the world, the pontiff left an indelible mark on the direction in which the world’s largest religious organization would follow in the modern world. As a defender of conservative values, John Paul II was many things to many different people: a humanitarian, a head of state, and the representative of God on Earth to many hundreds of millions of people.

During his over quarter-century as head of the largest religious sect in the world, with over a billion adherents across nearly all the continents, John Paul II made more advances toward religious pluralism than any other pope in history.

In 2001, he became the first head of the Church to enter a Muslim place of worship, going to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria that houses a shrine to St. John the Baptist, a site revered by Muslims and Christians alike. Later in his papacy, John Paul II publicly prayed for forgiveness for the wrongs that the Church committed during its long and sometimes tumultuous history, indirectly mentioning the Crusades of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, which peaked in 1099 with the fall of Jerusalem and the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians by Christian forces, and the Medieval Spanish Inquisition, which, under the direction of Tomás de Torquemada, persecuted thousands of Iberian Jews and Muslims. All of these acts were important steps on the road to a general rapprochement between the two religious traditions, which together claim approximately one-third of the world’s six billion people as members.

During his historic visit to Damascus, John Paul II said, “It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict.” Hopefully, Christians and Muslims alike will continue to strive toward seeing his vision of hope fulfilled.

Perhaps John Paul II’s greatest act of inter-religious bridge building was his decision to begin the long process of healing between Roman Catholics, and Christianity in general, and the Jews, who historically have been the targets of religious and cultural persecution at the hands of Christians, culminating in the violent Russian pogroms in the nineteenth century and the Holocaust during the Second World War.

In March 2000, he became the first pope to visit the state of Israel, meeting with governmental leaders and country’s two chief rabbis, the Ashkenazi Meir Lau (right) and the Sephardic Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, and visiting the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews as the only major remnant of Herod the Great’s reconstructed Second Temple. While at the Wall, the pontiff placed a written prayer asking forgiveness for the past sins committed in the name of the Church. Despite some criticisms that his actions did not go far enough, John Paul II’s powerful symbolic acts of atonement were undeniably landmarks in the often-troubled history between Christianity and Judaism.

Of course, as a human being, the pope was not without faults. This is only natural, as no human being can possibly be perfect. However, despite his missteps and errors in judgment, John Paul II led his life in accordance with the social and moral values that were instilled in him during his formative years.

He strove to uphold the will of God as he understood it. Although he had definite doctrinal and theological differences with Jews, Muslims, Protestant Christians, and members of the world’s other great religious traditions, John Paul II made great strides in reconciling these differences with an inclusive and pluralistic worldview. While we should recognize his imperfections, we should also celebrate the pontiff’s many accomplishments that bettered the lives of millions across the globe.