We Protestans share deeply in the anguish over the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II. We cared personally and instinctively about a brother, a Christian leader, a figure of immense influence in our world.
We did not always concern ourselves with the fate of popes -- unless it was to wish them ill. And popes paid us similar negative compliments in return. Centuries ago, the slurs and shouts across the papal/Protestant line were vituperative. Through the centuries, however, people of peace and good will -- some of them popes themselves -- brought about great change in the ways in which we view each other.
But traces of old hostilities lived on into our time. I am just old enough to recall our congregation's singing from a now happily obsolete Lutheran hymnal that God should thwart "the murderous Pope and Turk." Ironic, is it not, that those proper names are now tangled in the headlines long after the sentiment behind them has died?"
To say that Protestants care is not to say that they do not continue to have disagreements with this pope. Half the Protestant world joins half the Catholic world in support of a pope who opposes ordination of women and "artificial" birth control. Another half of Protestiantism joins with another half of Catholicism in support of a pope who has sided with the poor of the southern hemisphere.
Both halves of Protestantism wish the pope well, however, for what he, this man, this pope, has brought to the arguments over these issues.
Are there special Protestant angles of vision to bring to the events of last Wednesday in Rome? Or to those of not too many Mondays ago in Washington? Yes, we Protestants have some contributions.
Our very name imparts a clue. While many of us have adopted "have-a-nice-day" philosophies, historically our movement was born of protest. To many Catholics, it is still an insult to say that this or that Catholic movement is "grim, almost Protestant."
Protestant grimness is not supposed to be an all-purpose philosophy of life or, let us pray and smile, a mark of personal character. The grim or protesting note is born of a sense of human fallibility, the fragility of earthly powers, the mark of the demonic in all our doings.
But there is also a positive Protestant angle of vision on human tragedly that may stand us in good stead these days. This is a sense of reponsibility for the human, no matter what. I knew that not all Protestants have this sense. Some of us cannot wait for the world to end. We tear open the morning papers watching for word of Armageddon, or join the "survivalists" who burrow into the earth and hoard for "the coming bad times."
These men and women among us are heretics. Protestants are to use the signs of the end of human history ("Second Coming" and all) to heighten urgency in the meantime: to feed, to work for justice, to live out our quiet callings, even if in nameless heroism. And we are to do so not because everything will turn our right but because even when we lack power -- Catholic-type power, many of us used to say, as we looked on enviously -- we can be responsible.
Even as I write these lines, however, I know that Protestants cannot resume a sense of responsibility in a world of chaos or terrorism without having an example. We are Easter people, who believe in a Risen Lord and reborn causes. And we are going to welcome the example of this Catholic, Pope John Paul II, as he is restored to vigor and, we are sure, as he resumes living to the fullest.