Christianity Today executive editor Thomas C. Oden, a Methodist theologian at Drew University, met Pope John Paul II last December as general editor of InterVarsity Press's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Oden, formerly chairman of the board for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, looks back at the pope's impact on evangelicals in an interview with senior associate news editor Stan Guthrie.

What were the pope's most significant contributions concerning relations with evangelicals? He was certainly known as a very ecumenical pope.

John Paul II opened the door in ways that had not been opened before for Protestants, especially for evangelicals, to see that their doctrines, although they differ [from Catholic doctrines] in many ways, have important levels of similarity between them. I regard this as a work of the Holy Spirit in our time to bring the Christian community and all of its different manifestations worldwide into a greater proximate unity as the body of Christ.

The pope gave firm, moral leadership not only on culture-of-life questions, but on questions such as the firm commitment of the church to care for the poor without the overlay of secularist and socialist ideology. John Paul II was a strong, moral voice at a time when evangelicals were beginning to wake up to the fact that while we do, indeed, have many differences with Roman Catholics—on Scripture, sacrament, penitential practice, and many other things—we have many common and shared values, and, in some profound ways, shared doctrine. We share the same New Testament, the same canonical Scripture. We share the same confession, the same Nicene Creed, the same Apostle's Creed, and so forth.

What John Paul did is bring that into much greater palpability and accessibility to evangelicals than had been the case before. I really don't think that the project we call Evangelicals and Catholics Together could have occurred without Pope John Paul II. There were before Pope John Paul many great Catholic ecumenists who were part of making that way, but he broadened the way so that many of us could go in it.

What were the circumstances surrounding your visit to the Vatican late last year?

We have an Italian edition of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Our colleagues there were able to get an appointment, or a visit, with the pope so that we could present to him the results of the Ancient Christian Commentary. We have many Catholics in our translation team and editorial team.

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Of course, we're dealing with ancient documents that we, as Protestants, share with the Orthodox and with the Catholics as a joint patrimony. They don't become different documents in our hands; they're the same documents.

So we presented it to him and he was very gracious. There are a good number of people in the Catholic Church who understand the importance of this patristic project being developed, sponsored, and published by Protestants. This is something new for them, and we were able to celebrate that on this occasion.

Did you have an opportunity to speak with him?

I greeted him just by handshake, but we didn't speak individually. The conversation essentially went on in Italian. At that time he was quite frail, and yet this charismatic energy certainly showed through. I wouldn't say he was ill at the time we saw him, but he certainly was fragile and weak. We happened to be there just before his health began to fail rapidly. We were greeted warmly, and in a small way it helped to heal some of the divisions and the antagonisms that have prevailed between Protestants and Catholics over 500 years.

Many people see the late pope as one of the great figures of the 20th century.

John Paul II will be John Paul the Great. He will be one of the great popes in history. He probably will be among the five or ten greatest [pontiffs], because he's had such an impact on world history, world Christianity, and world evangelization.

What do you see ahead regarding Protestant and Catholic relations as the College of Cardinals selects a new leader?

The future is intrinsically unable to be penetrated. We are spared by the Holy Spirit from actually seeing the future. But I think the Holy Spirit is at work in ways beyond our knowing in the formation of the body of Christ worldwide. And the 1.1 billion Catholics certainly are a very significant part of that worldwide body of Christ.

I don't know how the College of Cardinals will act, but it's quite possible that we will get leadership from South America, which has half a billion Catholics, or from Africa, which has about 125 million, or possibly Asia—although less likely Asia.

But what we will see, I believe, could be the further internationalization of the papacy in the tradition of the election of a Polish pope. Now there could be an Italian pope elected, but that person could not ignore the global church. The arena on which evangelicals and Catholics meet is certainly global in scope. Evangelicals and Catholics in China, evangelicals and Catholics in India, evangelicals and Catholics in Korea—all of these places are areas with lively, interactive dialogues going on between evangelicals and Catholics, often at an informal level. They don't need to be blessed by some official group in order to be used by the Holy Spirit. Where the Spirit will lead us through all of this, I don't think we can see. We can pray for guidance.

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And you think that a lot of these dialogues and conversations at least at some level owe their existence to John Paul II?

I think it would be more accurate to say that these recognitions of the unity of the body of Christ owe their existence to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit has worked powerfully in John Paul II in a way that is almost unprecedented in the last century. He has been the one person who has embodied so much of the courage to face Nazi tyranny and communist tyranny. That's no small matter. He played a very important role in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I have no doubt about that.

He played a very important role in the emergence and furtherance of ecumenical teaching and thought. So I would say yes, he has been a significant figure in the ecumenizing of—that is, coming into greater oneness—of the one body of Christ the world over.

What other areas does the global church need to address in this young century?

The confrontation with Islam is absolutely fundamental. We are not prepared for it. We must be better informed about ourselves in order to engage it. And the sexuality questions that have emerged in North America are emerging all over the world. Those questions of how God has intended us to be together as man and woman will continue to be a crucial part of the agenda for the worldwide church. The persecuted church will also remain a very, very important aspect of that agenda, because still there are a minority of governments in the world that have what we would regard as decent civil rights, especially for religions.

Do you foresee the major branches of the worldwide church coming together more closely?

No. I don't think that the promise of ecumenism is institutional ecumenism. In other words, I think that's a 19th- and 20th-century idea that has been tried and failed. That's the old ecumenism. The new ecumenism will be a grassroots, Holy Spirit-led local expression of the unity of the body of Christ so that local persons, not just priests or ministers, but laypeople in Nigeria, for example, and laypeople in Singapore, where [we see] this spirit is emerging. There are many other places.

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How will a new pope have to deal with the Catholic Church in the United States, which goes its own way a lot of times?

You've got to keep in mind that there are only 80 million Roman Catholics in North America. There are a half a billion in South America. We in North America have the mistaken idea that God has worked through European and American voices and instruments in history in such a way as to make it seem like that will continue in the future. But it won't, really.

For example, the possibility of a North American cardinal being elected pope is just almost nil. There's a good reason for it. The North American church is not … really commensurable with the basic thrust of Catholic history, but also Christian history. In other words, our high degree of secularism, consumerism, feminism, et cetera—that whole spirit—has affected North American views of what the Roman Catholic Church should be in a way that just really doesn't reflect what God is doing in the church in the world.

I've heard that that evangelicals and Catholics get along very well in North America precisely because of some of those secularizing factors, whereas in areas where the Roman Catholic church is more traditional and stronger, relations are not so good.

That's a very good point. Indeed, there are ongoing, severe conflicts in South America particularly between Pentecostals and Catholics, where in virtually every village, every city, they are competing for members. And really, the Pentecostals and the evangelical Protestants in South America are making tremendously powerful, huge inroads into Catholic populations in cities. It's understandable that the Catholics would view that as a kind of threat, more seriously than in other places.

Even the late pope himself called the Protestant groups "sects."

Well, he also, in his ecumenical encyclical, made it clear that he viewed the inheritors of the Protestant traditions as Christian brothers and invited a re-examination of the papacy itself in light of the interaction between Protestants and Catholics. That's clearly a part of his agenda and his concern.

Let me just go back to your question about why the ecumenical dialogues have grown and expanded in North America more quickly than they have elsewhere. There is just a great vitality for this. I think the Spirit is at work in the North American church as well to bring this conversation into greater palpability.

But, the strength of the church worldwide is not in these conversations as such. It is in the preaching and sacramental life of ordinary laypeople. That is where I think something amazing is happening our time that really does involve and will, in fact, transform or is in process of transforming, these institutions that we call Catholicism and evangelicalism. They will not be the same 100 years from now as they are today. And we will see what a mighty work the Spirit has done in our time.