I remember John XXIII vaguely. And I remember the difference it made to us non-Catholics when he began to open up the windows of the RCC and let the air in. We all inhabited closed-off rooms in God's house back then, and people didn't cross denominational or confessional lines easily. John made it possible for Catholics to think of the rest of us as Christian and for us to allow as how a Pope could be a pretty good leader.
Paul VI was the Pope throughout my youth and young adulthood. He was an intense, intellectual, introverted man. He never seemed to be having much fun. The modern world hit him like a ton of bricks. His legacy was probably in the administrative work that institutionalized Vatican II.
I liked JP1 (Albino Luciani) very much. He was a gentle, reflective, loving man. He swept away all the trappings of the papal monarchy and set out to be a pastor. I was very disappointed when he died after only 33 days as Pope.
JP2 was a man of iron principles. At first, I thought he was just circling the wagons of Catholicism because that's what Polish Catholics had to do to continue to function under the Communists. He had a bad rep for doctrinal conservatism back then. But when one Christian body after another began to allow all kinds of heresy, the RCC rode it out, to their credit. And, of course, the challenge of confronting Communism produced a great victory for JP2 (and others). The sex abuse scandal (which is not limited to this country) I'm sure has saddened his declining years.
When JP2 leaves the scene, all sorts of people with axes to grind -- non-Catholic as well as Catholic -- are going to come out of the woodwork to tell everybody what kind of Pope ought to be elected. I'm hoping for someone who will defend historic Xtny, and who will be open to other Xtn bodies. Beyond that, it ain't my choice, and I will respectfully stay out of it.
Indeed, the only reason I say so much now -- United Methodist as I am -- is that the Pope is a big deal even for non-Catholics, and that by the Pope's own formulations. Orthodox, Anglican, even some Protestants will allow as how the Bishop of Rome has a historic role to play in the leadership of the whole Church. We'd like to see him play it. But those of us who are children of the Reformation (and/or the Enlightenment) are leery of the institution of the Papacy.
By ancient formulation, the Bishop of Rome is one of several Patriarchs who head the Church of Jesus Christ. Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem were the other ancient Patriarchates. Moscow became a Patriarchate (or claimed it) following the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks. For all practical purposes, the Archbishop of Canterbury functions as a Patriarch for the Anglican Communion (or should). And it seems to me that the other great families of Xtns should be considered as what the Orthodox call "autocephalous" Churches (whether or not we have single Heads like Patriarchs): the worldwide Lutherans; the Methodists; others.
We belong to each other. The Body of Christ longs to be whole again. But to go back to 1870 or 1517 or 1054 or some date is not possible. A lot has happened, some of it bad, much good. The children of the Reformation -- who left (or were forced out) largely on the basis of Papal claims and Papal actions -- cannot simply say the last 500 years have been an exercise in wrong-headedness on our part. To heal the Body, all of its leaders and members have to be willing to try to salve the wounds we have inflicted upon that Body -- including the next Pope.
As Charles Williams put it in his poem, "The Prayers of the Pope,"
. . . 'Where is difference between us?
What does the line along the rivers define?
Causes and catapults they have and we have,
and the death of a brave beauty is mutual everywhere.
If there be difference, it must be in thy sense
that we declare -- O Blessed, pardon affirmation! --
and they deny -- O Blessed, pardon negation! --
that we derive from them and they from us,
and alive are they in us and we in them.
We know how we have sinned; we know not how they.
Intend for us the double wealth of repentance;
send not, send not, the rich empty away.'
For us all to return to some point where we could embrace again the Undivided Church we all come from, all of us would have to give up some things we are very fond of, the Papacy no less than anybody. I do not look for that to happen in my lifetime, but then God will act in his own good time, and those who are alive to see it will wonder and say, "Truly it is the Lord's doing, and marvelous in our eyes."
At least we can pray for it, and for each other, and for John Paul.