Inside the numbers: The Pope

Posted: Apr 05, 2005 12:00 AM

No polling numbers are needed for this subject. Pope John Paul II was a hugely popular figure just about everywhere, and the reasons are as legion as his followers.

 That popularity includes many non-Catholics who, as recently as a generation ago, were still a bit uneasy on the subject of the Vatican and its Holy See.

I'm a former member of the Non-Denominational Christian Church -- basically Southern Baptists without the hierarchy -- who has converted to Catholicism. I think I can offer some perspective from the viewpoint of the many non-Catholics who now mourn the Holy Father's passing with such genuine sadness.

 Until I grew up and married my Catholic wife, I had known only one Christian minister. His name was Jim Dyer, but we called him simply "Preacher Jim."

 To this day, he is one of finest human beings I've known. He drew his religious accounts straight from the Gospel, but he never wore real or pretended holiness on his sleeve. He didn't want to preach on TV or espouse some special cause that would gain prominence. He was too busy ministering to sick church members in hospitals.

 Even today, he is spending the best of himself in his golden years working in a hospice he helped found, giving solace to families in their darkest hours.

 When I became engaged to my Catholic wife about 20 years ago, it was Preacher Jim who suggested that I might eventually want to think of joining her church; he reiterated this after we had two children.

 He acknowledged that there were differences between religious denominations. Of course there were. But he saw nothing so doctrinally or socially significant in these differences as to prevent my becoming Catholic -- especially since the ascendancy to the Holy See by John Paul II. Preacher Jim saw the new pope as a man devoted to spreading the message of unconditional love found in New Testament.

 Then I began to hear the messages delivered by a great leader, Monsignor Edward Dillon, and his parish priests. It became clear that -- at least in our family's parish -- the Catholic Church wasn't the cold and rigid entity it had been portrayed to me by some of the denominations that were similar to my childhood church.

 Right away, I felt comfortable in the Church, and for reasons beyond the quietly charismatic leadership displayed by one monsignor. As with the lack of friction felt with the new Catholic Church by many whose Christian allegiance belongs to other, usually Protestant, denominations, my comfort level had much to do with Pope John Paul.

 He had brought to the forefront of Catholic worship not just ritual and liturgy, but also that same spirit of the Gospel's love that I had been taught in the church of my Southern childhood. Pope John Paul centered the church on the very essence of its being -- the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

 As a youngster, I had not sensed the same vibrations from the papacy of Paul VI. He seemed to me mostly stern and regal.

 I think those who read his messages and remember his style would agree that while his intentions were pure, Pope Paul seemed mired in the bureaucratic and philosophical details of the newly revamped Vatican policies of that time.

 It's true that many of those policies and doctrines were unhesitatingly adopted and carried forth by Pope John Paul -- including an unflinching opposition to birth control, abortion and women priests. These doctrines remain contentious ones. They alienate important segments of the faithful, especially young American women.

 Still, U.S. Catholics continue to attend mass in substantial numbers -- certainly more than in Europe. I believe a big reason is the Church's gravitation toward the basic core teachings of the New Testament.

Over the weekend, I thumbed through a book of photos of the pope that my family had given me a while back. This time, I noticed a preface by another minister I've always admired, the Rev. Billy Graham.

 It would have seemed almost bizarre 30 years ago for an evangelist like Graham to have penned a glowing introduction about the pope. As recently as 1960, John Kennedy's Catholicism was a major issue in presidential politics.

 The positive change since then can't be ascribed only to the impact John Paul II had on geopolitical and other grand affairs.

 Instead, it is largely because -- like Preacher Jim, Monsignor Dillon and Billy Graham -- Pope John Paul II was in words and deeds a true evangelist. And that's why so many people of so many faiths are touched by his passing.