By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2005
A Protestant minister wearing a white robe and red stole, one among about 30 Christian, Jewish and Muslim representatives, spoke a prayer of intercession for “our Holy Father” from the pulpit during a memorial Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
In the congregation, young Turkish Muslims from the Istanbul Cultural Center came to support their Catholic friends and to pay their respects to the beloved pontiff Pope John Paul II.
At Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, a few blocks from the Cathedral, the senior minister called the pope one of the great Christian leaders of the 20th century whose ministry crossed denominational lines. Holding a moment of silence during the worship service, he asked God’s blessing on his memory and on the selection of the next vicar of Christ.
At Emory University in Atlanta, a rabbi honored Pope John Paul II following a memorial Mass.
Across the archdiocese, as Catholics mourned the loss of Pope John Paul II, clergy and lay persons of other faiths and other Christian denominations also remembered and reflected on the honorable life and legacy of Pope John Paul II. While holding different theological viewpoints on a variety of issues, they expressed profound admiration and respect for the deeply spiritual, intellectual and steadfast pontiff, a true shepherd to Catholics and the world, with total dedication to Jesus Christ.
Bishop Neil Alexander of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta spoke of the inspiration he and the Episcopal Church received through the pope. He too said personal prayers for the pope.
“Together with all of our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, we mourn the death of His Holiness John Paul II. He was a clear light burning for the Gospel of Jesus in our generation. His faithfulness to the great apostolic tradition, his clear love and respect for all God’s people, his ecumenical and interfaith vision, and his unwavering pastoral heart, have been powerfully inspiring to all who claim the faith of the Risen Christ,” Bishop Alexander said.
Rabbi David Blumenthal, Emory University Jay and Leslie Cohen professor of Judaic studies, said the pope “set a model for what Christian reconciliation is,” as he took four major steps forward that were crucial for Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
“It’s important for people to have strong models in front of them. I think this man and his beliefs set an example. Not all world leaders do, but this one did. You have to admire that he was genuine in who he was and he was faithful to his faith and you can’t ask for more than that. He was a very spiritual person,” Rabbi Blumenthal said.
He stressed the importance of the pope’s acknowledgement of the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jews and the political embodiment of the sovereignty of the Jewish people.
“If you’ve been a people without a home since the time of Jesus, having the leader of the church recognize the state of Israel as the home of the Jewish people … that was a very important step forward,” Rabbi Blumenthal said.
Other steps forward were his affirming in the face of internal resistance that Jews are not guilty of deicide, that there is no supersession of Judaism by Christianity but an ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people, and that the 12-14 million Jews worldwide are not to be targeted for evangelization, he continued.
The Polish pope, who lived under the Nazis, also brought the Holocaust to the center of Catholic consciousness, asking forgiveness several times from the Jewish people and from God for the role played by individual Catholics in the Holocaust, organizing a memorial concert and visiting Auschwitz, he said. The pope also visited Israel and prayed at the Western Wall.
It’s all the more poignant when “the Jewish community has a long memory of pretty bad centuries of Catholic-Jewish relations … The pope did a great deal in countering that trend,” the rabbi said.
The pope even pursued Catholic-Jewish reconciliation with him. When living in Rome as only the second Jew to teach at Gregorian University, Rabbi Blumenthal and his family attended a private audience with the pope. When Pope John Paul II came to Rabbi Blumenthal, he introduced himself as a rabbi, as he had been instructed to do, and gave the pope three books he’d written. The pope stopped and began discussing the books with him and then took both his hands and said, “God bless you” without invoking Jesus Christ or making the Sign of the Cross, a blessing he repeated on the rabbi’s wife and son.
“John Paul II was committed to the tradition of ‘Nostra Aetate’ and he wanted to honor our difference, while affirming our common rootedness in God, so he blessed us without reference to the particularity of his own faith,” Rabbi Blumenthal recalled.
Atlanta Bishop-emeritus Harold Skillrud of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-Southeastern Synod spoke of the pope’s leadership in the area of ecumenism, on which he wrote an encyclical in 1995. During his papacy, walls of suspicion that existed between the Lutheran and Catholic Church since the Reformation were broken down, Bishop Skillrud said.
“Prior to that time there was a lot of feeling that other (Christian churches) were looked down on. He broke that wide open,” he said.
Bishop Skillrud was co-chair of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, which culminated in the signing in 1999 of a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification, that salvation is a free gift from God that cannot be earned by performing good works, but rather is reflected in good works.
It was signed in Augsburg, Germany, where disagreement over that issue by monk Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
“Justification by faith is the most important article of faith and to have the Roman Catholic Church joining with us and declaring it to be truth, that was a real step forward. It doesn’t imply that all the differences were resolved, but the most important issue was,” Bishop Skillrud said.
In 1990 he and Cardinal J. Francis Stafford met for 30 minutes with the pope to receive approval to make an official declaration on justification; Bishop Skillrud was delighted when the pope gave them each a bishop’s cross.
“(Archbishop) John Donoghue and I have the same, identical cross. (The pope) recognized my office, which surprised me, and he gave my wife a rosary,” he recalled. “You can’t be in his presence without sensing the deep spirituality of this man. Everybody says that, but this was really very special, very unique, in the way he reached out to all beyond his own church body. He was very genuine. When he said he hoped there would be a total unification of the church, he really meant that.”
Rev. Hans-Juergen Hoeppke, pastor of the German Church of Atlanta, was among those at the Cathedral Mass to show his respect for the pope.
“I think he was a great spiritual leader,” said the minister, who came from Germany in 2003. “He was a very honorable man and I can relate very clearly to him because he was born and raised behind the Iron Curtain and I’m from a country which was divided still until 1990 … Pope John Paul II was the one who brought down the communist grip on Eastern Europe and (eventually) I think he was the one who brought down the (Berlin) Wall … We’re all very thankful for that.”
The Lutheran, formerly church historian at the University of Greifswald, said the Lutheran Church is engaging in the same struggle as the pope and the Catholic Church to revitalize Christianity in Europe as it grows in wealth and becomes secularized.
“Many people are leaving the church. It’s a big, huge movement—not outspoken atheists but agnostics” particularly in formerly communist countries of Europe, he said.
Umit Goker, a Turkish Muslim, said the pope was an inspiration as a man of faith, conscience and commitment to peace.
“We believe in the same God,” he said. “He inspired people from all different countries. I respected and admired … his loyalty and commitment in his own belief.”
He came to the memorial Mass with his colleague Altan Kalayci; they strive to promote cultural understanding and interfaith dialogue through the Istanbul Cultural Center in Atlanta. He said the Vatican ambassador in Turkey has a very good relationship with Muslim leaders there and one of their leading scholars, Fethullah Gulen, visited the Vatican in 1998.
“It’s very important so people in Turkey do not alienate each other because they have different faiths. It’s an important step for peace,” Goker said.
Professor-emeritus Manfred Hoffman of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, who taught a class on modern Roman Catholicism and who is theologian-in-residence at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, admired the pontiff’s great leadership, faithfulness to his principles and unceasing work for peace.
“He was quite an accomplished philosopher; in teaching philosophy and theology, (in) his knowledge of languages, this man was extraordinary,” Hoffman said. “The legacy he delivers is conservative and traditional. He was a man of principles and he stood by his principles.”
Hoffman found him truly inspiring in Christian spirituality.
“This man was exemplary in both his personal behavior and his spirituality. This man struggled with God in prayer … People loved him. I loved him. He was a great man,” Hoffman said. “(I was inspired) not so much in his theology or ethics, but his spirituality is inspiring for me—maybe that a highly intelligent man like him was equally strong in his spiritual habits … And you cannot forget that strong image of suffering, that man bent over, standing there and holding onto his cross.”
Hoffman, who is from Germany, believes the pope’s theology was rooted in his experiences under communism in Poland, and that he was a positive, stabilizing force after the Second Vatican Council.
“He was a remarkable man, certainly highly intelligent but stubborn, particularly in his political views but also in his theological views. The main idea that comes to mind is he stabilized the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. It’s not that the church was in turmoil, but very often no limits were set. He settled the church, stabilized it, but along conservative lines of theology … Conservative lines essentially meant theologically he led the church back to fundamentals that make Roman Catholicism what it is,” said Hoffman.
He spoke also of the pope’s strong stance against imposition of democracy through war, that led him to oppose U.S. actions in Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Iraq, and gave him a “tremendous international voice and influence” for peace.
Hoffman sees a certain parallel in the pope’s efforts to bring about reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.
“His political views are quite clearly against any intervention or imposition of democracy by war … That spills over to a certain religious toleration. He was the one who went out of his way and initiated reconciliation with the Jewish religion—that’s very important. Again, it’s that nobody can be forced to faith and nobody can be forced to democracy.”
The pope brought suffering into focus for the world as he leaned on his crosier and finally was confined to a wheelchair; his strength in weakness, his character and simplicity endeared him to many, Hoffman said, while in his extensive pilgrimages he recaptured understanding of the universality of the church.
He was “a symbol of unity, a symbol of spirituality, a symbol of true humanity,” Hoffman said.