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Pope John Paul II

The Holy Father sat at the window, looking out at the crowds below that waited, hoping to hear his Easter message. He tried. Lord knows, he tried. But all they could hear were gasping breaths as he struggled—physically struggled—to speak. Finally, the microphone was pushed aside and he blessed them with the sign of the cross, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In St. Peter’s Square that day, many wept.

There were five of us, journalists by profession, Catholics in practice, gathered in an office watching the television reports. It was October 16, 1978.

The second papal conclave in a little over a month was two days old. It was lunchtime in our small town in Indiana, home base for our national Catholic newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor. It was 6:15 P.M., Rome time.

White smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel had let the world know that a new pope had been elected. Pericle Cardinal Felici, the same cardinal who had announced the election of Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I on August 25, once again made the dramatic announcement of habemus papam: “We have a pope!” Luciani had died in his sleep barely a month before.

Cardinal Felici fumbled with the name as he tried so carefully to pronounce it correctly: Cardinalem Wojtyla. The crowd in St. Peter’s Square seemed as confused as the crowd in the newspaper office in Indiana.

“Who?” somebody asked.

“I didn’t get it,” I said. “Was it Benelli?” The cardinal archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Benelli, though a cardinal for only a little over year, had become a popular pick of those making prognostications on the outcome of the conclave.

Then one of the guys in the office said, almost in shock, “Wojtyla—the cardinal of Krakow.”

“Poland?” was the brilliant follow-up question.

There we were, a collection of alleged Catholic journalists, and we only had a vague notion of Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal archbishop of Krakow, Poland, who had become Pope John Paul II.

It simply was assumed that the man to succeed the “September Pope” would be Italian. There hadn’t been a non-Italian pontiff since Adrian IV in the twelfth century. And, frankly, whenever we thought of Communist-controlled Poland, the name that came to mind was the charismatic warrior Stefan Wyszynski, the cardinal primate. Embarrassed by our own ignorance, we almost could excuse the excited local Hoosier radio broadcaster who announced that the cardinals had elected for the first time in centuries a non-Catholic pope.

Of course, the Hoosier newsman’s confusion was not unlike the initial response from certain Catholic media darlings, unofficial representatives of the Church culture in the United States. The reaction to the new pontiff in those circles seemed to echo tasteless ethnic jokes. They wondered to whatever microphone would listen about the cultural blinders that a pope from Eastern Europe would bring with him, picturing to the media a Polish church locked in a pre-Vatican II deep-freeze with a fixation on a dated anti-Communism. The implication seemed to be that the new pontiff would need some education in the ways of the world.

Within a year, that dated anti-Communism would face a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the complete breakdown of whatever East-West goodwill still lingered from the Leonid Brezhnev–Richard Nixon era of détente in the early 1970s. But we were all caught up in our own little worlds back then, trapped by our narrow presumptions. One man’s blinders on anti-Communism might be another man’s perspective that Western capitalism was the answer for man’s salvation, and a pope who had lived under the heel of socialism would know it.

As it turned out, it was this Polish Pope who widened our views and opened us to the overarching questions of what it meant to be human in the modern world. But many didn’t get it in the beginning. We wanted to box him in to our own prejudices.

Pooling His Resources

We all had our quick impressions, an initial one being that the cardinals had elected the first athlete since Pius XI who, in his early days, had been an accomplished skier. Though he had a noticeable slump in one shoulder—the result of being hit by a truck in 1944—this new pontiff had the bearing of a man who liked physical action. Like his predecessor, John Paul II had been a skier. And a soccer player. And a handy man with a canoe. And a hiker.

A young American priest who later became bishop of Pittsburgh, Donald W. Wuerl, stationed in Rome at the time, recalled the new Pope as he visited the offices of John Cardinal Wright, where the priest served as the cardinal’s secretary. “He walked in like an athlete,” he said. The story was told that when newsmen found out that a swimming pool was going in at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat, the new Pope was asked about the expense. “Cheaper than another conclave,” he is said to have responded.

In those first heady days of his pontificate, we all were exposed to the bare bones of a papal biography for Karol Wojtyla. Born in 1920 in Wadowice, a working-class town outside of Krakow, his father was a military man, his mother of Lithuanian descent. It was not an idyllic childhood. An infant sister predeceased his birth; his mother died when he was nine; three years later his older brother Edmund, a practicing physician and the pride of the family, died at twenty-six of scarlet fever. When his father died in 1941, Karol was left essentially alone at age twenty-one, a year and a half before he committed to the priesthood.

This athletic young man who had a love of Polish poetry, theater, and philosophy had his comfortable life of academic engagement shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. By late 1940, he was doing forced labor as a stonecutter in a quarry. He later worked in a chemical plant to avoid deportation to Germany. While there, he also began to study for the priesthood at an underground seminary in Krakow.

By August 1944, the occupying Germans were rounding up young Polish men once again for forced labor. Wojtyla took refuge with other seminarians in the archbishop’s residence in Krakow, which became the seminary for the archdiocese. He remained there until the end of the war and was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946. He left almost immediately for study in post-war Rome as an impoverished young Polish priest pursuing scholarly studies at the Angelicum.

That was the background to the Holy Father. The rest we had were dates: named an auxiliary bishop in 1958 by Pope Pius XII just a few months before his death; became archbishop of Krakow in 1964; attended all four session of the Second Vatican Council; created a cardinal on June 28, 1967 by Pope Paul VI.

And eleven years later he became Pope John Paul II.

Fear or Faith?

Personally, I wanted to see him crack heads in the first few days. Like many, I had failed to understand the accomplishments of Paul VI. Worn out as so many were by the cultural tsunami of the 1970s and the seeming lethargic response of the Church, I hoped this athlete-pope was going to launch his own crusade. Straighten everybody out. Put things in their proper order—my order. In other words, I was as unsuspecting as the culture of dissent. Little did I know that his message was so much bigger, so much more profound than my petty agenda.

“Be afraid” should be the message of this new pontiff, I thought. Be very afraid. And then, he said: “Be not afraid.” It was October 22, 1978, the day of his installation. And the Holy Father had this message for the world:

Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the pope and all who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Be not afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.

It was not the message I expected. My whole gimmick was based on the premise that contemporary man rejected faith in arrogance. The “new man”—in a kind of contemporary devolution into Nietzsche’s Superman—had set himself up as god, the master of his own little universe.

This Pope was saying something different. He was seeing contemporary man in a different way: humanity as alone in a secular trap, not knowing the fundamental answers to the elementary questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? The result was fear: fear of the present, fear of the future.

As George Weigel neatly summed up this first message in his masterful biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, “The world, he reflected, was afraid of itself and of its future. To all those who were afraid, to all those caught in the great loneliness of the modern world, ‘I ask you . . . I beg you, let Christ speak to you. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”

Freedom and Truth

Fear. Too fearful to believe. So, too fearful to be truly free. It was fear that kept mankind from embracing Jesus, locked him into self-destructive alternatives, and set up political, economic and social systems that robbed human dignity. It was fear that dominated the world of man, not arrogance. And it made no difference if one was a wealthy westerner, a worker drone in a Soviet collective, or a modern-day serf in Latin America.

The answer, he told the world, the end of fear and the beginning of liberation, would be found only in Christ. He would free the worker drone, but he also would liberate from the loneliness and fear that preyed on the very wealthiest of men. It was a message beyond ideology, beyond the political parameters of debate that had been set up over the previous twenty-five years.

It took a long time for this to sink in for me, as for many papal watchers. It took a long time to understand a message that was meant to liberate in faith, with liberation in spirit sure to follow.

The Holy Father quickly put this message into concrete form in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”). In it—an ode to Christ as the Savior and light of the world—he established the dramatic message of his pontificate and the themes that would intertwine for the next twenty-six years. He described a world on the cusp of a new millenium, a celebration of the Incarnation of Christ. Through the Incarnation, God revealed himself to humanity and “gave human life the dimension he had intended man to have from the beginning.”

Religious liberty is not merely one right among many; it is the fundamental right from which all other human rights evolve, the Holy Father explained, because it underlines the essential dignity of every human life that comes from the Creator. And when that essential dignity is recognized in religious expression, the petty tyrannies of life—whether imposed by dictatorial government apparatchik or a philosophy of materialism that reduces man—vanishes. The answer to mankind’s restless quest is so simple: God. God as revealed through the Incarnation.

Weigel explains Redemptor Hominis this way:

The answer to humanity’s fear of itself lay in rediscovering that human nature is moral and spiritual, not simply material. . . . John Paul concludes his inaugural encyclical by revisiting one of the most familiar sentences in St. Augustine’s Confessions—”You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Here, he proposes, is the key to unlocking the mystery of modern restlessness, modern fear, and the “instability” built into modern materialism. . . . The restlessness could be calmed, the hungers that burdened our souls satisfied, and the fear that haunted the modern world dispelled, if men and women shared in the prophetic, priestly and kingly missions of Christ—if they freely g.asped the truth, freely worshiped in the truth, and freely served one another in truth.

That was the fundamental message John Paul II carried worldwide in his pontificate. If we didn’t grasp that, all the theatrics, all the images that played out over his twenty-six years—performing the wedding of a street cleaner’s daughter, collapsing as a gun shot strikes him, sitting in quiet conversation with his attempted assassin, celebrating Mass in the Philippines for the largest crowd of humanity ever assembled, visiting Rome’s synagogue, climbing down from a stage to embrace an armless youth who had played the guitar for him with his feet, and telling hundreds of thousands of youth that “John Paul II loves you too!”—if we didn’t g.asp his fundamental message, all those images amount to nothing more than media frenzy.

His call and message was simple: a call to conversion, a call to know God, if it is peace we are looking for. All else in our lives reflects our relationship with God. With God, we have everything; without him, we have only ourselves. And the loneliness. And the fear.

His first visit to Poland in June 1979 showed the world what his first encyclical meant in practice. The petty Communist dictatorship—not only in Poland but throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—soon collapsed under the force of his message of human liberation. “Allow Christ to find you,” he said. And the world changed.

Nuns and Starlets

When the Holy Father made his first visit as pope to America in early October 1979, I remained in Indiana, putting together the nuts and bolts of Our Sunday Visitor’s coverage of the historic event. On the side, I was writing a running commentary on the visit that would be narrated for a record album—we still did “records” back then—by the legendary actress Helen Hayes. Never had such weak writing sounded so good.

Caught up in the busyness of it all, it was easy enough for me to miss the forest for the trees, but a new spirit had been let loose on the world by John Paul II.

One of the most telling moments for me in his first pilgrimage to the United States was not his speech to the United Nations, his jubilant encounter with young people, or the Mass for half a million in Chicago’s Grant Park. It was when Sr. Teresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, decided to give him a lecture during her introductory remarks before his address to an assembly of sisters in Washington, D.C. The Holy Father politely listened as she called on him to allow women to “share in the mission that Christ has entrusted to the Church: his own mission of salvation”—a thinly veiled reference to the ordination of women to the priesthood, a hot button in the culture of dissent.

In that moment, the cultural wars within the Church in the United States that had been going on since the later 1960s suddenly seemed to snap like a buggy whip. It was not to argue any longer whether Sr. Kane was wrong or right. It all suddenly seemed irrelevant. There were far bigger, far greater issues that the Holy Father was spelling out for the world. The old arguments seemed just like that: old arguments.

I met the Holy Father only once, and it was just a brief handshake. It was during his second papal pilgrimage to the United States in 1987. He was speaking in Los Angeles to leaders in the communications field. I was there representing Our Sunday Visitor. The group in attendance was Hollywood’s A-list, and I felt more than a bit presumptuous—and more than a little star-struck—being smack in the middle of just about every star I could remember from too many hours spent in movie houses and in front of a television set.

And then the Holy Father arrived, standing in front of this group and addressing them about their vital need to care genuinely about the implications their entertainment has on the popular culture of America and of the world. Polite applause, but not much subsequent action.

His speech done, he walked slowly up the aisle greeting the Hollywood A-list personally. They reached out to touch him, to whisper a few words, to smile, and not a few with tears in their eyes. I thought one famous starlet was going to collapse right in front of him as she asked for his blessing. As I leaned across and he g.asped my hand, I could only say, “Thank you, Holy Father. Thank you for everything.” He looked at me for just a few short seconds, as if he knew that all I wanted to say could never be contained in one phrase or a thousand. Then he smiled, nodded his head, and moved on to the next jelly-legged starlet.

At least I got to thank him.

The news came to the crowds assembled in St. Peter’s Square that the Holy Father had died. The tears began then, and they flowed all over the world.

I remembered another crowd in the first year of his pontificate—a million of his fellow Poles, still in the grip of Soviet rule and the puppet-like tyranny of their imposed Communist government. They were gathered in Victory Square in Warsaw to hear his message. As he spoke to them of Jesus, from somewhere in the crowd it started, a chant that soon would come from every voice: “We want God!” they said, over and over again. “We want God!”

His message in his twenty-six-year pontificate was how to fill that want. Because he knew that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

The Holy Father could not give his Easter message to the crowd below that had waited for him. He could no longer speak out loud to the world he loved. The printed text of his message contained a simple prayer: “Living Word of the Father, give hope and trust to all who are searching for the true meaning of their lives.”



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