This Lutheran's Sainted Popes

Robert Morrison is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared on, May 8, 2014.

The forthcoming birthday (May 18th) of Saint John Paul has given me occasion to reflect on this great man's legacy. He was the one who taught us all that everyone deserves a birth day. And it's an occasion for reflection on my own gift of long life.

I graduated from high school the month Pope John XXIII died. Even so, I felt the winds of change from the windows he had opened. With the Vatican II Council underway at this genial Pope's call, my Catholic relatives were excited about the new aggiornamento -- updating -- they were seeing.

We had only recently elected the first Catholic U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. Now, it seemed, historic divisions were coming together. Protestants were not becoming Catholic, nor Catholics becoming Protestant. But there was a new found mutual respect. We Protestants were now being called "Separated Brethren." That had a warm and embracing sound to it.

Unchurched then, I joked that my loving family was divided between Catholics and Protestants and I was always seated on the Protestant side at the reunions. The church we didn't go to was definitely the Protestant one.

When I came to faith in Christ, however, I knew which Protestant church I would not join. It was one of those that constantly preached against the Catholics. As it turned out, my newfound faith, my pro-life convictions, and my love for history impelled me to join The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Serving then in the U.S. Coast Guard, I had been ministered to by the powerful biblical preaching of an LCMS Navy chaplain.

In October, 1978, I was on a Coast Guard cutter in the middle of the Bering Sea when word came across our teletype machine of a second convening of the College of Cardinals in Rome. We were at first confused by the chattering teletype message printed on the yellow roll of paper. But, here, yes, they were in a conclave again. The new Pope, John Paul I, had suddenly died!

We were in the midst of the Soviet fishing fleet when we received the first words of another Pope-a Pole! Around us were arrayed the red hammer-and-sickle flags of our Cold War adversary. I could hardly be more separated from Rome as one of those Separated Brethren. And yet the news from Rome brought us the first words to the City and to the World from this new Pope: Be not afraid!

My brother officers -- especially my Catholic and Evangelical shipmates -- were thrilled by this message. I certainly was. Our duty in boarding Soviet trawlers could be dangerous. At any moment, we might find ourselves in the midst of an international incident. Might our cutter inadvertently stray across the border between the Big Diomede and Little Diomede islands? It was the only place on earth where the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other warily across a common border.

We soon learned what Be Not Afraid meant to this Polish Pope. As the young Karol Wojtyla, he had sought refuge with his Polish army officer father in the East when the Nazis invaded his homeland on September 1, 1939. Within days, however, he and his father learned of the Soviet invasion from the East. They decided to return to their home and risk life under the German occupiers. That move doubtless saved young Karol's life. Stalin's secret police shot thousands of Polish army officers and secretly buried their bodies in the Katyn forest. Karol and his father might well have been among them.

Even returning to his home, however, was fraught with danger. One of his brother seminarians, a close friend studying with him under the revered Adam Cardinal Sapieha, was swept up by the Gestapo and killed. The Nazi scythe passed very close to the neck of Karol, this would-be priest.

And yet this Polish Pope, surviving and thriving through 40 years of atheist Communist tyranny, could still echo the words of the Archangel to the Blessed Virgin Mary: Be not afraid.

Soon, I got out of the Coast Guard and married. My wife and I were on our honeymoon in a California Alpine village. We had been happy to get out of San Francisco, the city of our wedding, because that was the week when bodies were brought back from the mass suicide at Jonestown. In that same week, Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in City Hall.

We didn't want to see a newspaper or television report. Except that we couldn't avoid the news of Pope John Paul II taking his first vacation. He was in the Alps skiing! The headline read: Pope on the Slope and it filled our hearts with hope.

Moving East, I was recruited for a job with the Catholic dioceses of Connecticut. But I'm a Lutheran, I told my interviewers. That's okay, said Bill Wholean, my would-be boss. He wanted to show his fellow faithful Catholics that the Church's pro-life message was for everyone. "It's like the TV ad," Bill joked. "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye." Well, you don't have to be Catholic to understand the pro-life message.

For three years, I worked faithfully for the four Catholic dioceses of Connecticut. One time, I attended a weekend convention of the other, more liberal Lutheran denomination. It was being held in Hartford at the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. I had my booth and my literature for the pan-Lutheran group, Lutherans for Life.

When the convention organizers learned I was not there to sell life insurance, they tried to kick me out. I protested I had paid the registration fee and was not causing trouble. "We're going to call Security," they threatened.

"Okay," I said, "but I work for Archbishop Whealon. He's your host. The Hartford Courant might find it a good story how Lutherans were kicking a Lutheran out of a Catholic Cathedral because he's pro-life." I stayed.

I was certainly more in line with the Archbishop and the good folks who generously maintained that great cathedral than these liberal convention organizers were. It was during that time that I made a point of reading all the Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.

Especially important to me was his majestic Evangelium Vitae -- the Gospel of Life. That powerful statement of Christian doctrine for the defense of defenseless unborn children was a unifying message.

Then, in 1983, I was excited to see "my" Pope visiting a Lutheran church in Rome. He was cordially greeted by the pastor of Christus Kirche, Dr. Christoph Meyer. Dr. Meyer was dressed in a black clerical gown and skullcap and a white 16th century ruff. I liked that. (It was about time we Lutherans showed some press savvy.)

This was the first visit of a Catholic Pope to a Lutheran congregation in history. But Pope John Paul II was always making history, it seemed. The Pope said in that Quincentennial Year "the commemoration of the birth of the reformer Martin Luther makes the ecumenical question particularly important this year." He greeted my fellow Lutherans as ""brothers and sisters in Christ."

The visit went off most warmly. I would sometimes tease my Catholic family and friends. "You know, the Pope got a friendlier, more respectful reception from those Roman Lutherans than he got from some of those radical American nuns!"

Humor or not, the truth was becoming increasingly clear that what LCMS President Dr. Ralph Bohlmann called "ethical ecumenism" -- our strong agreement with Catholics on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, our sincere concurrence on the importance of marriage, and our mutually respectful defense of religious liberty -- was healing the divisions of centuries.

We may not yet be in full communion, but we are ready to stand with one another and to honor each Christian leader's efforts to speak truth to power in an increasingly hostile media world.

That's why I as a Lutheran can celebrate the canonization of these two Catholic Popes.