In an article for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today (11-29-07), writer David Scott tells the surprising story of how Pope John Paul II worked together in Poland with the evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ. Some highlights:
When Karol Wojtyla stepped out on the Vatican balcony on October 16, 1978, as the new Pope John Paul II, waving to the crowds in St. Peter's Square on the first day of his auspicious papacy, the person preaching for him in his home pulpit back in Krakow, Poland, was none other than Billy Graham.
. . . the man who would be pope was already overseeing a radical partnership between a Polish Catholic youth renewal movement popularly known as Oasis and the American evangelical ministry Campus Crusade for Christ.
. . . When 27,000 Oasis pilgrims showed up for their retreats the next summer, what they experienced was a strange unabashed mix of Polish Catholicism—Marian devotion included—and American evangelical revivalism.
. . . While some might wonder whether Campus Crusade was theologically naïve, the same could not be imagined of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Norman Geisler, whom Hinkson recruited as guest speaker for the Polish summer retreats. After returning from Poland, Geisler wrote of his trip in The Christian Herald: "What I experienced was a dynamic, joyous, Christian, and evangelistic community of believers who were more eager than most American evangelicals I know to learn and live the Word of God." Geisler described that summer as the most gratifying experience of his then 25-year ministry.
In January 1978 Blachnicki came to America to visit Bill Bright at Campus Crusade's headquarters in Arrowhead Springs, California. Bright probed Blachnicki about the usual evangelical concerns: "I asked him," Bright remembered, "What about the Virgin Mary? What about praying to the saints? … He gave me answers which for one with my background were satisfying and amazing."
Except for a "few fine points," Bright concluded, "there was basically no difference between what he believed and what I believed." Little more than a decade later, in 1994, Bright was one of the signers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)—a statement of shared convictions by 40 Protestant and Catholic leaders. Bright attributed his support to his personal confidence in the spiritual authenticity of Catholic reformers like Wojtyla and Blachnicki, a trust that was established through their history of working together.
. . . The late pope had seen how mass mobilization centered on a conservative piety could accelerate church renewal. Later he approached the challenges of his papacy with the same mix of traditional spirituality and popular mobilization.
In this respect, John Paul II was not all that different from Bill Hybels or Rick Warren. He tried to harness the forms of popular culture to conservative piety in order to to reinvigorate the church.
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My friend Stan Williams alerted me to another remarkable joint project, and continuing Catholic-evangelical cooperation in Poland, in his article that will be published at Catholic Exchange:
During this same period, in 1970, Bright organized an effort to make a movie about Jesus. The result was The Jesus Film, released in 1979 by Warner Brothers and co-directed by veteran filmmakers John Krish and Peter Sykes. An Evangelical missionary to Rome, Rev. Martin Lombardo (Jesus Cares Ministry), who every day kneels in front of St. Peter's and prays for the pope and the Catholic Church, handed a video copy of The Jesus Film to a Vatican prelate he had befriended. Within a year the Vatican had ordered thousands of copies for worldwide distribution and helped translate the film into hundreds of languages. Thanks to the Catholic Church, Bill Bright's Jesus film is the most watched film of all time, and has been reportedly translated into over 1,000 languages. Today, this Campus Crusade produced film that came out of Bill Bright's personal vision over 50 years ago, is distributed by the Vatican, and strongly supported by the American Catholic bishops (Adam Cardinal Maida, Archbishop of Detroit is the Ecclesiastical Advisor). It is available through Millennium Films International of Ann Arbor, MI.
[Dave: According to The New York Times and BBC News, it is indeed the most watched film in history; seen by over two billion people and viewed (including repeat viewings) almost 5.6 billion times. See the Wikipedia article on the movie; footnotes 3-5]
Finally, in December 2006, at the invitation of the Polish Catholic Church, Campus Crusade's evangelist Josh McDowell [Dave: a huge influence in my own initial interest in apologetics] went to Katowice, Poland and spoke to 2,500 parents at one event, 6,500 youth at an evangelistic outreach, and in other settings spoke to over 200 Catholic priests and nuns. The response has been so good that four parishes plan to have Josh back in the Spring of 2009.