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The pope's ecumenical reach


When Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass at Camden Yards on Sunday and travels through the streets of Baltimore in a papal parade, he will be cheered by a multitude of Roman Catholics. He is their leader, their role model, their Holy Father -- the one they believe to be God's deputy, the Vicar of Christ.

Joining these Catholics, in spirit if not in person, will be many Protestants who secretly wish they had a pope. Despite the fact that their churches were formed by Christians desperate to escape papal authority, these Protestants admire John Paul II and his leadership of the Catholic Church. If their own denominations could work out the organizational details, they would really like a pope of their own. Why?

First, the pope is a symbol of the unity of the Catholic Church. While it is said that Baptists "multiply by division," forming new congregations every time a church splits, Catholics remain united under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. This is not to say that all Catholics agree with the pope's teachings, but all do have a connection to the same Holy Father. Although they are not "one big happy family," Catholics clearly are a family, Baltimore to Bangkok.

'Unity of the church'

"The Bishop of Rome does offer an important sign for the unity of the church," notes the Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, United Methodist minister and associate professor of theology at Loyola College in Baltimore. "He reminds Protestants of the scandal of disunity. The pope seeks reconciliation among the churches, most recently in his encyclical entitled, 'That All May Be One.' "

Second, the pope speaks with remarkable clarity. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admit that John Paul II is clear about where he stands. Pro-life. Pro-celibate priesthood. Anti-contraception. Anti-ordination of women. Even non-Christians admire him for holding on to strong beliefs in our relativistic world. Protestants tired of the diversity of stands in their own churches (where individual conscience rules), are drawn to the clarity of the pope's positions. They may not like what he says, but at least they know what he is saying.

An authority figure

Some Protestants "are looking for someone to speak with pastoral authority in our time," says the Rev. Dr. Edward W. Castner, interim pastor of Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church in Crofton, and former Associate General Presbyter of National Capital Presbytery.

"This pope offers a sign of hope to a fragmented and despairing world," Mr. Jones said. "He has been critical of consumerism and materialism, and knows what the culture of death looks like. The pope's theological passion and exemplary witness shine through the darkness of disbelief, bureaucracy and chaos."

Third, the pope is a leader with a human touch. A humorous coffee mug defines Protestantism this way: "It's the thought that counts." (The same mug's definition of Catholicism: "Stop thinking those thoughts"). Focus on "thought" is a problem for Protestantism, because Christianity has always been a very earthy religion. Jesus: God in human flesh. Communion: the body and the blood. Church: the body of Christ. While some may say, "The pope is only a man," others will say, "Exactly. That's the point." The pope is a human, representing God in human form. There is power in his flesh and blood presence, in his human touch.

Visiting Rome in 1990, Mr. Castner joined a thousand others in an audience with the pope. "It was very impressive to see his pastoral touch," this Presbyterian leader said. "He spoke with groups of people in their own languages. We don't have anyone who is a pastor for our communion -- we don't have an enduring pastoral figure."

Because of a longing for unity, clarity and the human touch, there will be few protests from Protestants when the pope visits Baltimore.

Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.

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