In November 1989 word went out that Mikhail Gorbachev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, would stop in Rome en route to a summit meeting with President George Bush. In Rome he would have an audience with Pope John Paul II.
This was glasnost, 200 proof. The head of the communist world had bumped into the answer to Stalin’s question: How many divisions has the Pope? And the Pope was engaging in spiritual geopolitics at summit level: he wanted human rights for the faithful in Russia. Karol Wojtyla’s training was extensive, dating back to discreet studies for the priesthood under Nazi occupation in Poland. After that, parish work and academic studies under communist rule, leading in 1963 to the episcopacy in Cracow. Pity poor Gorbachev. Seventy-two years of formal national commitment to atheism, backed by the Gulag, and now, 1989, a street poll revealed that 40% of Soviet citizens believed in God.
The Berlin Wall had come down a few weeks before, and no one doubted any longer that the great Soviet enterprise was headed for collapse. But for a while, Secretary Gorbachev would be treated as you and I would be treated if we had disposed of 40,000 nuclear missiles. And anyway, Gorbachev was a polemical swinger right to the end. The ideological imagination was hardly dead. The following Sunday, no doubt expressing the new Soviet line, chief press spokesman for the Kremlin Gennadi Gerasimov appeared with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. It’s true, he said, that communism is evolving, but so is Christianity. Christian values and communist values – “especially early Christian values” – are the same.
That was a subtle and learned line, and it is used in many contexts to fondle the difficulties John Paul II has frequently expressed about capitalism. In his long travails, Karol Wojtyla has spoken critically about Western economic arrangements, and it was this theme that caught the opportunistic eye of Gerasimov. Didn’t communism, like early Christianity, seek to eliminate poverty? Was not the communist ideal an expression of Christian concern for the communal ownership of property?
In Mexico, five months later, the Pope was speaking in Pancho Villa country and sounding very much like Pancho Villa. He wanted it made clear, he said, that in celebrating the collapse of communism, he had not meant to say capitalism had triumphed. The Pope told the great crowd that he had criticized communism not for its economic shortcomings but rather because it “violated or jeopardized the dignity of the person.” That was the same papal language used in Canada in 1984, and one hears traces of it today, most recently in Havana when the Pope met with Fidel Castro.
But then in 1991 Centesimus annus came in, a 25,000-word encyclical on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the momentous condemnation of liberalism and materialism. Materialism meant then what it means today. By liberalism, Pope Leo had in mind contemporary movements that sought, in the name of “modernism,” to free human beings from traditional attachments to church and family. In the centennial encyclical, Pope John Paul reiterated his frequent admonitions. The worker or manager who reports to duty at the shop every morning inflamed by the desire to make a better widget and sell more of it is one thing; quite another if he or she goes home listlessly unconcerned with human life and human attachments having to do with respect for the elderly, a love for one’s family, the capacity to take joy from Christian perspectives. Papal prose is turgid, but here the Pope did say in almost as many words that socialism was an extravagant historical failure. If, then, all one need do in evaluating capitalism is admonish against greed and abusive economic-political arrangements, the exorcism is quickly over, and Gerasimov is left as speechless as Gorbachev quickly became after losing his handle on the nuclear football.
John Paul II is by every measurement as cosmopolitan in experience and steeped in erudition as anyone who comes to mind. He speaks eight languages fluently, he is the author of scholarly books and dissertations and has traveled in virtually every country in the world. One supposes that, notwithstanding, he is not by personal experience familiar with the kind of thing one can pick up to read in urban kiosks or turn to view on late-night television. But you’d still deduce that Pope John would not be surprised by anything he read or saw: he has been exposed at very close quarters to the ingenuity of God’s creatures, no less creative in depravity than in goodness.
What does surprise is the near virginal conviction of this sophisticated Pole that Providence has kept a watchful eye on him. His recovery in 1981 from an assassin’s bullet the Pope would probably not term miraculous only because fastidious Catholic theology frowns on the use of that word, except when the theological department of weights and measures has been there with all its paraphernalia of skepticism and given an O.K. Still, he is known to believe that the good Lord had a hand in his survival, and he is said to believe that he is fated to be Pope right up through Jan. l, 2000, formally escorting the church into its third millennium. If this should prove so, if he is alive 18 months from now, there are probably a few medical observers who will be willing to use the word miraculous. In any case, people will ask, what is it that Pope John Paul II uniquely brings to the millennium? Almost all who have experienced him at close quarters understand the special luminosity he radiates when surrounded live by a million people. But the great historical backdrop of his splendor fades. He was the student and manual laborer from Wadowice in Poland who became the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. His was the dominant spiritual presence in the final round of the great revolutionary challenge that began soon after the turn of the century and sought no less than to alter Western assumptions about human life. But that role is not really what the critics want to dwell upon. What’s on their mind is the stands Pope John Paul has taken on women. On their right to take holy orders, to abort a fetus, to frustrate insemination by artificial means. And they want to talk about the overexercise of papal authority, about the discipline he has exercised over dissident theologians.
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien is one of the most widely known U.S. theologians, a professor at Notre Dame and the author of numerous books. The most recent of these is Lives of the Popes. At the end of the book, he undertakes a ranking. There is, first, “Outstanding Popes,” followed by “Good or Above Average Popes.” John Paul II makes neither of these categories. Father McBrien rates him as less than great because he did not flesh out Vatican II. But he rates him as “Historically Important,” as Gorbachev would confirm.
That he is at least that is not questionable, even if one anticipates a millennium of wrangling about women’s rights at the altar, the distribution of hierarchical power and allocutory nuance. But there are many thousands who will live well into the next century with photographic memories of John Paul II. The late-teenage boys and girls who gathered in great numbers to see him in Denver in 1993 will, many of them, be alive when John Paul II is dead in 50 years, and their recall will be sensual. I saw him in January, with the usual million people, including Fidel Castro. There was some trepidation about the Pope’s health at the Sunday Mass. The Pope was cautiously introduced by Havana’s Jaime Cardinal Ortega. We heard then the voice of the Pope. Not very expressive, but the Spanish he spoke was well turned and clearly enunciated. In a matter of seconds he communicated his special, penetrating, transcendent warmth. Close-up we could see the ravages of his apparent affliction (Parkinson’s), his age (77) and his gun wound (1981). The cumulative result of it all is a stoop and the listless expression on his face – the hangdog look. But then intermittently the great light within flashes, and one sees the most radiant face on the public scene, a presence so commanding as to have arrested a generation of humankind, who wonder gratefully whether the Lord Himself had a hand in shaping the special charisma of this servant of the servants of God.