U.S. Protestant leaders praised Pope John Paul II's efforts to foster greater Christian unity and fight the global culture wars, areas on which they often agreed with the late Roman Catholic pontiff despite other theological differences.
John Paul died Saturday at age 84 after his body shut down following a long struggle with Parkinsons disease, heart failure, and breathing problems.
Bishop J. Delano Ellis, president of the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops, visited the Vatican several times during John Paul's papacy and called him a man of prayer and deep devotion.
"But he's also a pope that has reached out as far as he could afford to reach," Ellis told Religion News Service. "He's reached out to other faith groups in an effort to create a sense of peace between us."
Whether up close or from a distance, Protestant leaders of a variety of stripes recalled the pope's efforts on topics of mutual agreement and credit him with a legacy that advanced ecumenism. Mainline and evangelical, black and white, these representatives of a separate branch of Christianity noted their ties to the world's most famous Catholic.
"We stood there, talked for about five minutes about the Pentecostal community in America and throughout the world, and I told him we thanked God for his openness and his willingness to at least acknowledge our coexistence with our Roman brothers and sisters," recalled Ellis, who also is senior pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Christ in Cleveland, about his first visit with the pope in 1991.
Evangelist Billy Graham said in a statement that he considers the pontiff to be the top moral leader of the century.
"Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years," Graham said. "His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world. He was truly one of those rare individuals whose legacy will endure long after he has gone."
Graham said the pope viewed himself as an evangelist, rallying non-believers to faithful commitment, and said his struggle with sickness was inspirational.
"His courage and perseverance in the face of advancing age and illness were an inspiration to millions including me," said the 86-year-old Protestant evangelist.
The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation, affirmed the pontiff's role in reaching out to members of the Lutheran faith.
"Lutherans will always remember John Paul II as the pope who fostered an unprecedented growth in Lutheran/Roman Catholic relations," said Hanson, who also is presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in a statement.
"Healing the wounds laid bare during the 16th-century Reformation took on new meaning as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed in 1999. We live in new hope that the spirit of the living Christ will continue that work and bring about an even stronger relationship between the two church bodies."
Charles W. Colson, founder and president of Prison Fellowship, agreed that the pontiff's focus on ecumenism symbolized by his 1995 encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" (That All May Be One) was a hallmark of his papacy for Protestants.
"The pope's willingness to reach out to Christians outside of the Roman Catholic faith was critical to promoting unity across the Christian family. His vision, his determination, and his loving spirit will be missed by Christians around the world," said Colson, cofounder (with First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus) of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions.
Other U.S. Christian leaders focused on the pope's efforts to condemn abortion and same-sex marriage and affirm religious freedom.
"The disagreements that people who are Protestants have with John Paul II are things that are in addition to the foundations of the faith," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"He certainly is considered a spokesman for the Christian faith that has tremendous respect among all branches of Christendom both for his staunch defense of traditional Christian faith and his strong defense of political and religious freedom."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative Christian organization, spoke of the pope's legacy when he asked evangelical Christians to join in prayer for him during his recent illness.
"Pope John Paul II has been one of the foremost leaders in building a culture of life," wrote Perkins, a Southern Baptist, in his organization's e-newsletter when the pope was admitted to the hospital in early February.
"His contribution to the fall of communism in Europe cannot go unnoticed. Because of him, millions around the globe now have the freedom to practice their faith, especially as Christians."
Several Protestant leaders, in interviews, noted that not all Christians would agree with all of the pontiff's stances.
For example, Ellis said he didn't see the pope as "the infallible one." Nevertheless, he chose to treat the pontiff whose faithful resoluteness he compared to the Apostle Paul with esteem.
"That respect even causes us, when he enters a room, to stand in deference to him," Ellis said. "That's not worship. That's respect."
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