I once knew a Congregationalist minister—Yale Divinity School graduate, decorated World War II chaplain, veteran campaigner for then-unpopular liberal causes—of whom it was said (sometimes by himself) that “David Colwell so fears God that he fears no one else.” It was a striking statement, redolent, perhaps, of the Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) School of American Protestant Homiletics. But the source of this man’s fearlessness was rather different than that of a man I was just coming to know when David Colwell and I were friendly jousting partners on questions theological and political.
That man was Pope John Paul II.
The dissident Yugoslav Marxist, Milovan Djilas, who had seen a lot in his life, once said that the Polish pope impressed him as a man utterly without fear. As I wrote in Witness to Hope, however, John Paul’s fearlessness was neither stoic nor driven by concerns about postmortem divine retribution. Rather, it was a fearlessness rooted in John Paul’s rock-solid faith that God’s Kingdom had broken into history in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Because of that, those who became friends of the Lord Jesus and entered the communion of his Church could live beyond fear, here and now, because they had been empowered to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now.
That faith-based fearlessness might well inspire the bishops of the United States on their upcoming ad limina visits to Rome and the “thresholds of the Apostles”: the pilgrimage that every bishop is required to make on a regular basis, during which the Americans will meet in regional groups with Pope Francis and officials of the Roman Curia. Why ought the bishops display fearlessness in Rome? Because their task during the ad limina cycle that begins this month and concludes in February 2020 will be to correct the cartoon view of the Church in the United States that is widespread in the Vatican these days.