The recent death of Pope John Paul II has elicited what I find to be an extraordinary range of responses across the world. I say this as a person fascinated by the history of Catholicism and a lover of the Catholic arts, but also as somebody who is not a Catholic by birth and is an atheist by conviction. These global responses need to be understood as part of a complex interplay between elements of his legacy; this is what makes them so interesting.
First, of course, John Paul II has been instrumental in the great tide of change that swept the world in the late 1980s and which saw the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Some commentators have been gushing about his role as the principle instigator of these changes.
This strikes me as bizarre. I would have thought that this title should unequivocally go to Mikhail Gorbachev. Without the political will within the Kremlin to allow satrap states to pursue self-determination, Poland could easily have followed the path of Czechoslovakia a couple of decades previously. John Paul II is an understandable hero of many Poles given the influence he brought to bear on the communist regime in his homeland of Poland, but his role now appears to be exaggerated in many of the encomiums currently being sung in his praise.
Second, and more validly in my view, John Paul II has played an important role in inter-faith dialogue. The acclaim he has received for his work in this area tends to be much more general in its endorsement of his legacy. For example, just a few of the comments that I have been sent this week include the following, from leaders within their faith communities:
His Holiness represented a spirituality that was boundless, encompassing all of humanity, the rich, the poor, the disadvantaged. He traversed the globe many times and spread enormous good-will wherever he went … he will be sorely missed by both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. (Mohini Gunesekera, President, Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils)
Pope John Paul II was responsible for one of the most important breakthroughs in relations between the Jewish and Catholic communities … (his) work in building understanding between religions was long standing, but particularly evident in the build-up to the Millennium Celebrations, when at his directive, interfaith meetings were organised between major religious groups all around the world. (Jeremy Jones, Immediate Past President, Executive Council of Australian Jewry)
Pope John Paul II was a beacon of hope and joy for millions of Catholics and other people of faith in the world. He will continue to be a source of inspiration for generations to come. (Paramjit Singh Roopra, President, Sikh Kirtan Prachar Mission of Australia)
We pray that the next pope will continue furthering Christian-Muslim relations, and will use the power of his papacy to urge for social justice, moral welfare, political freedom and self-determination that Muslims in many parts of the world long for so much. The Quran informs Muslims that the nearest in friendship to Muslims are Christians; and that the reason for this is because there are among them priests and monks, i.e. those who have given themselves humbly up for the cause of God. We can think of no greater cause today in the way of God than that the next Pope will continue the legacy of Pope John Paul II, and work towards a greater understanding of the positive role that religion - all religion - can play in a shrunken global society, in order to build the “kingdom of heaven on earth,” the Biblical “City on the Hill” that has space in it for adherents of all faiths, including those who in their spiritual journey, are still at the stage of finding no need for faith at all. (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Founder of the Cordoba Initiative and Imam of the Masjid Al-Farah mosque in New York)
Clearly, there is a sense among many non-Catholics, that this pontiff made significant progress in healing what have been traditional suspicions and antagonisms between the world’s differing religions and within various divisions of Christianity. This rapprochement is interesting for a number of reasons.
On the one hand some leaders of non-Christian religions have bemoaned the secularisation of the democratic West: the decline of moral values that have been caused by the decline in Christianity (the inference is that this decline has lead to moral laxness which in turn has impacted on the moral values of other faiths and other cultures - had this not happened, perhaps the “contagion” of western culture would be less harmful).
On the other hand it has been driven by a mutual core conservatism - a conservative Papacy regretting the loss of Catholic fervour and a diminishing of Catholic religious values compared to the greater commitment shown by those of other faiths.
It is impossible not to admire their (Muslims’) fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent Cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all. (Pope John Paul II)