On this day in 2005, Pope John Paul II died in his private apartment in Rome. In many ways, John Paul was a ground-breaking pope. At age 58, he was the youngest pope of the 20th century to be elected. Born in Poland as Karol Wojtyla, he was the first Slavic pontiff of history and the first non-Italian to assume the post for over 4 ½ centuries. John Paul was also the most widely-traveled pope of all time, visiting 129 countries in his 26-year pontificate.
In the early years of his papacy, John Paul II stared down Polish communism, stating, “I am not afraid of them. They are afraid of me.” He set precedents by being the first pontiff to visit the synagogue in Rome and the first to meet with a Sunni Islamic leader. In addition, he made unprecedented apologies for Catholic sins of the past and encouraged fellow Catholics to do the same.
John Paul’s groundbreaking ways were inspired by the unconventional preacher he followed. The crowds were amazed when the Nazarene taught, because he breathed new life into old teachings. “Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s son?” they whispered. “Where did he get such authority?” (Mark 6:3)
The word “authority” can also mean power. Jesus didn’t stand behind a pulpit in lavish robes, separating himself from the people. He was the rabbi to the rabble, diving into crowds to demonstrate the power of God for unction and uplifting. No one could predict what he would do next. He chatted with loose women, dined with crooks, rebuked his disciples for shooing away children. None of these actions were publicity stunts, but the deeds of a man energized by love. The early church followed the example of their Master and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, turned the world upside down.
Our Christianity can easily slip into traditionalism. The world is quite willing to dismiss predictable religion that hunkers behind safe walls. However, it’s hard to ignore faith that acts more like a roaring flood than a dry creek.