I speak today as an Evangelical Christian and a Christian human rights advocate profoundly influenced and inspired by Blessed Pope John Paul II.
It’s no overstatement to describe John Paul as the most significant and influential Christian leader of the 20thcentury.
He was much loved by millions of Evangelicals across the globe. In a substantial way John Paul made possible the very existence of my own organization, Alliance Defending Freedom. We are an international legal alliance of Catholic and Evangelical attorneys working shoulder to shoulder for religious liberty, life, marriage, and family.
As I’ve studied his writings, I’m taken by the fact that for him, True Ecumenism, was not ignoring differences between Evangelicals and Catholics, for they exist, but rather, focusing on what we share in common—Jesus Christ– to promote unity between Christians.
In the words of John Paul and I quote, “The entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern“.
He added: “Thus, it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature”.
The leading Evangelical publication Christianity Today, which rarely praises anyone, praised John Paul and observed that his “biggest accomplishment [might be] his ecumenism.”
As the Archbishop of Krakow, the future pope lived out ecumenism and opened doors of healthy dialogue with Evangelicals that had never existed before him.
In the 1970s he was personally responsible for providing American Evangelist Dr. Billy Graham with the necessary invitation needed for his historic “Crusade for Christ” in Poland, where Billy Graham directly took on, and challenged, the official Communist doctrine of atheism in that country. This is something John Paul would do in his three Papal visits to Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987.
In 1977, John Paul, worked in partnership with American Evangelical leader Dr. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Dr. Bright helped John Paul shape the Polish Catholic Youth renewal movement popularly known as Oasis. Oasis, ministered mostly to Catholic youth, and incorporated Campus Crusade’s core discipleship training series, creating in Poland, a Catholic version of American evangelical revivalism.
In the face of Communism and later Western Secularism, John Paul easily found common ground with Evangelicals in a shared faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After one American missionary heard him speak in Africa, she said, and I quote, “It was the clearest presentation of the Gospel that I [have] ever heard.”
Of course, he was by no means an Evangelical. But Evangelicals saw him as a man devoted to a biblical faith in Christ with a commitment to proclaiming the Gospel to an increasingly lost secular world.
He shared many core values with Evangelicals. In fact Dr. Bill Bright and other Evangelical leaders found more in common with John Paul than they did with some Protestant denominations that had badly fallen away from biblical truth.
In 1993, Dr. Bill Bright was a key founder of my organization Alliance Defending Freedom. Dr. Bright, himself an Evangelical, hired as our very first President and CEO my friend Alan Sears, a very faithful Catholic.
Let’s turn for a moment to the early life of John Paul, which of course, shaped his core values.
Warned of the power of the Catholic Church in lands he plotted to enslave, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once famously sneered, “How many divisions does the pope command?”
Enough divisions–as it turned out–to help bring down Communism in Europe. Divisions — not of soldiers and tanks — but of faith, of courage, and the hunger for freedom.
Their general of course was an unarmed Polish freedom fighter named Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.
He survived the near-destruction of his beloved Poland by the Nazis, only to see it overrun by the Communists. He saw his Jewish friends and Catholic university professors sent to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Alone in the world after the deaths of his parents and only brother, he pounded rocks in a limestone quarry under Nazi rule, gaining rough worker’s hands and hard muscles. He risked his life daily by studying secretly for the priesthood, helping to shelter Jews and resisting Nazism as a member of an underground drama group. He was an athlete, a poet, a playwright, an actor, a scholar, an intellectual, and a man of God—and he bloomed like a flower.
After ordination as a priest, he quickly rose through the clerical ranks as bishop, archbishop and cardinal in the 1950s and ‘60s –- all while courageously –and cleverly– jousting with the ruling communist government that sought to stamp out all religious life in Poland.
This was the man who returned to Poland in 1979–a quarter-century after Stalin’s death– as Pope John Paul II. He stood before a million Poles at an outdoor Mass in Warsaw and declared his lifelong motto, “Be not afraid!” “Be not afraid!”
It electrified the world, and shook Communist Party bosses all the way to the Kremlin and signaled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe — and eventually Russia itself.
Even an assassination attempt didn’t stop the march he led toward freedom. Other dynamic allies joined him: Lech Walesa and the Solidarity worker movement, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the Germans who brought down the Berlin Wall, and dissidents and human rights activists and Christian believers throughout the continent.
But it was John Paul who cracked open the door, and he was the leader who guided the way.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stated– “Without this pope, it would be impossible to understand what happened in Europe at the end of the 1980s”.
John Paul later stated– “The tree was rotten. All l I did was shake it.”
It’s no wonder that this man was not intimidated in later years by the Western Liberal Elites who tried to browbeat him into submitting to their ubber secularist notions of “progress.”
Like the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn–his philosophical soul mate and fellow survivor of communism–he recognized that the West’s unfettered selfishness, secularism, and radical personal autonomy, threatened the human soul just as much as the atheistic totalitarianism he had battled for decades. Like European Communism, the tree of modern relativism was also rotten -– and desperately in needed shaking.
One of the hallmarks of his papacy, according to writer Frank Bruni of The New York Times, was his “steadfast refusal to accept that certain modern practices should be deemed morally correct just because they were popular.”
Better to lose the world, John Paul reasoned, than to give in to it. But he had no intention of losing it. He was the missionary pope. He traveled to 129 countries, spoke eight languages fluently and possessed a working knowledge of many other tongues –- all in order to spread the Catholic faith. But he reached out to all people, and led millions to Christ.
And millions of Evangelicals loved and respected him for his zeal, his personal warmth and his unyielding stand for human dignity, the sanctity of life, and many other moral convictions we share.
Following John Paul’s death, Billy Graham declared that he was, quote, “unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years…. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world…. His courage and perseverance in the face of advancing age and illness were an inspiration to millions -– including me.”
John Paul had enormous influence on Evangelicalism. It’s impossible to quantify his influence, but here is just a sampling that comes to mind.
First– Christianity is a global faith, not a national or regional religion.
John Paul didn’t travel the world incessantly just to see the sights. His biographers have observed that he realized at the beginning of his papacy that the growth and future of the church had moved south to Latin America and Africa and east toward Asia. So he went there to evangelize, while simultaneously working to “re-evangelize” the traditional centers of Catholicism.
I’m told that non-Catholics don’t realize that his globetrotting remained controversial inside the Vatican. Many bishops and cardinals wanted him to stay home like other popes, administer the church bureaucracy and take care of the flock. His evangelistic outreach, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ directly to the people of all nations, is a role model we should all follow.
Second– Young people are the key.
Even in his declining years, he exerted a magnetic attraction on youth all over the world. Even in secularized United States and Western Europe, they flocked to him in their millions. It wasn’t just that he was a kindly father figure. Ignoring numerous calls to compromise Catholic beliefs to reach the young, he confronted them with the challenge to lead purposeful lives, which is what they yearned for in a seemingly purposeless age. His message of self sacrifice–to set aside selfish desires–to live in holiness, and to serve others, was profoundly impactful on the young.
Pointing his finger at his youthful listeners, he said–“Christ is looking for young people like you!” And they responded.
Third– Stand firm against the watering down of the Truth.
You may be aware that some “liberal” protestant denominations have drifted away from the truth of Holy Scripture. We conservative Evangelicals like to think we’re guarding and practicing the “true faith” while these liberal Protestants hop on whatever social bandwagon the world drags by – even if it’s in direct conflict with the teachings of Scripture. But John Paul set the best example. He said, and I quote, “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”
Fourth– Suffering becomes holy when we accept it as a gift of God.
John Paul earned the right to preach this maxim -– and he lived it to the end. He saw believers persecuted and killed for their faith almost from the beginning of his life, and found meaning in their suffering. He embraced the words of Christ, who said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NIV).
Fifth–Every life has dignity and eternal worth, from conception to natural death — and beyond.
That includes the unborn and the born, the young and the aged, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the children of God and the lost.
This is something that John Paul knew intimately. Biographer Milena Kindziuk writes that John Paul’s mother, Emilia, saved him from an abortion. When she became pregnant with the future pope, the gynecologist of her village told her that she had no chance of giving birth to a live child and recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. The devoutly Catholic Emilia of course refused to do so.
Turning to the question of Life, John Paul’s influence on Evangelicals cannot be overstated. It was John Paul, of course, who invented the phrase “culture of life.”
One need only recall that after the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States actually passed a resolution supporting the pro-abortion point of view. There were many reasons for this. But the preeminent voice leading Southern Baptists and many other Evangelicals out of this darkness was none other than John Paul. As Evangelicals woke up to the “culture of life”, he provided the moral impetus, and not just on abortion, but also on the question of euthanasia and related issues. Together with the great Evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer, John Paul gave the moral rationale and underpinnings that galvanized Catholics and Evangelicals together on the issues of life as we took on the modern culture of death.
John Paul most clearly expressed his views on Life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life. In it he essentially argues for the integrity of every individual person made in the image of God, and that the Gospel requires us to be advocates for the sanctity of life whenever we encounter it. And his message was one of all Christians standing together on this.
In Evangelium Vitae hewarns of an “extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to life” in our day. These new threats arise from the application of science and technology, such as abortion and embryo research. These “crimes against life” as he called them, have taken on an “even more sinister character” precisely because they are often regarded not as tragedies but as an exercise of individual rights and freedoms. Thus, paradoxically, what were once crimes now “assume the nature of ‘rights’, to the point that the state is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through free health services.
Moreover, he observed that these new “rights” are vigorously promoted around the globe by the richest and most powerful nations, which are haunted by the specter of demographic growth among the “most prolific and poorer people”.
He explained that abominable practices like abortion and euthanasia are falsely justified by a radical mind/body dualism that identifies moral worth solely with mental abilities such as self-awareness and consciousness, while denigrating the non-self aware human body to the level of raw material – a “blob of tissue” — that can be readily tinkered with or simply disposed of.
Of course John Paul was absolutely right and the currency, and coherency, of his arguments penetrated not only the Catholic culture, but informed Christians of all denominations. His views converged with the views of Frances Schaeffer and spearheaded a dawning awareness of the life issues among Evangelicals. As Baptist theologian Timothy George noted, “it was the pope and Francis Schaeffer who brought Evangelicals on board with [the] pro-life issue.”
As a brilliant intellectual, he provided the theological ballast for the Christian position on life. And he did this quite apart from his role within Roman Catholicism. The currency and weight of his teaching transcended Catholicism and spoke to the soul of all Christians of every denomination. This was no small feat.
In closing, as I reflect on John Paul’s role and impact on Evangelicals, all I can think to say is that he was an authentic man of God in every possible way. He came at exactly the right time and served exactly the right role for God’s kingdom. In the absence of his leadership on every moral issue he touched, the world would be in far more desperate straits. His God-given ability to present the intellectual, moral, and scriptural argument for life in a pious, winsome, articulate, and all embracing way, not only profoundly influenced Evangelicals world-wide, but most importantly, saved millions upon millions of innocent lives. And his voice resonated with Evangelicals in a way that invites us to stand in unity with Catholics, shoulder to shoulder, in Christ, fighting for the sanctity of life and for religious freedom.