Millions of people are out of work, and many others change jobs every few years. But one very important person has kept his job for a quarter century, and this fact alone has brought him a great deal of attention.
I write, of course, of Karol Wojtyla, better know as John Paul II, bishop of Rome, and thus pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He is number 262 in a line of leaders that goes back, according to Church teaching, to Peter.
Most popes served less than 10 years, and many fewer than five: an astounding 46 popes stayed in office less than 13 months! Only two have served longer than the current pope: Pius IX and his immediate successor Leo XIII, covering the second half of the 19th century.
Mostly, the opportunity to celebrate a silver anniversary is a matter of age: Wojtyla was only 58 when his election in 1978 was signaled by the plume of white smoke rising from the chimney of the Vatican.
“Do not be afraid,” he said in his first public address; and for these 25 years he has practiced what he preached—mostly.
Hope has been the theme of his reign: Crossing the Threshold of Hope was the title of his best-selling book at the turn of the millennium.
He has been fearless in confronting both the atheism of the East and the hedonism of the West. He has faced down the Communist in his native Poland; many give him significant credit for the collapse of totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.
With enormous moral authority, the pope has challenged the self-centered materialism of many Christianized countries, rightly calling it a contradiction of the gospel that lies at the root of our culture.
John Paul also stood against the American invasion of Iraq and has championed the cause of the Palestinian people. At the same time, he became the first pope in history to enter a Muslim mosque and pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He sought better relations with Orthodox Christians in Russia and Greece, and also with Protestants in Europe and Evangelicals in America. He is a legitimate candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps only Muhammad Ali can rival the pope as the primary global celebrity of our time. He has traveled the world, taking up the cause of the poor and advocating a consistent life ethic: condemning war, abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. This has not been easy; he is a courageous man.
But the Pope is not totally without fear, and these lingering fears have kept him from unleashing the kind of Christian practice that could bring a radical transformation to the world as we know it.
John Paul, it seems, has been afraid of two very important groups of believers. He fears what might happen if they are set free from the artificial boundaries that he (and most other religious leaders) impose.
The Pope fears the intelligentsia, specifically the theologians whose writings explore the edges of orthodoxy and challenge the current consensus.
Time and again he has denied the right of free expression to those who dissent from his version of the Christian faith. Such restrictions on thinking, writing and speaking bring little hope to a world often dominated by ignorance and ideology.
John Paul also fears the women, writing and working to prevent women from assuming their needful, rightful place in the affairs of church and state.
John Paul’s affection for Mary and his elevation of Teresa toward her inevitable sainthood do not obscure the fact that he has resisted the chief need of our time: freeing women from the patriarchal structures that keep them everywhere marginalized.
A crusade (even led by the pope) on behalf of women of the world is the single most effective evangelistic strategy available to Christians. It would protect women from the violence, illness and poverty that is most often their lot in life; it would extend an irresistible invitation from a religious community that embraces fully their dignity as people made in the image of God.
Do not be afraid, John Paul, to bring the full-orbed hope of Christ to all the people of the world, and in this way finish the splendid ministry by which God has blessed the world for these 25 years.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.