The Power of Pope John Paul II

Author: Andrew Nagorski

In the summer of 1981 when I was posted in Moscow for Newsweek, Solidarity was riding the crest of a euphoric wave in neighboring Poland. The free trade union had been operating openly for a full year, and the country was flooded with Solidarity banners, pins, stickers and other mementos, including those that celebrated the pride of Poland, Pope John Paul II. The communist authorities would abruptly change course a few months later, declaring martial law and outlawing Solidarity. But those fair days were still a period when seemingly everything was possible, everything was permissible.

That summer my wife, Christina, who grew up in Poland, was returning from a visit there with our three children in tow. I drove out to Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport and waited for them to arrive on a flight that was delayed and didn’t land until midnight. I could see that our children, especially 1-year-old Adam, were exhausted as Christina maneuvered them and the luggage through the long customs line. To my relief, the customs officer, a young woman, saw what kind of shape they were in and began waving Christina’s suitcases through without inspecting them. She allowed me to take the children and put them into the car. When I returned, Christina was all set to go, but at the last minute the customs officer asked her to open her purse. When Christina did so, the woman’s face suddenly colored as she plucked out a key chain with a picture of Pope John Paul II and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. “Oh, no, this won’t pass,” she sputtered. “Bring back everything.” For the next three hours as the children slept in the car, she methodically searched every piece of luggage. And she refused to return the key chain.

A year later, I was expelled by the Soviet authorities from Moscow because of their displeasure with my reporting, and I was assigned to Rome, where I began covering the pope, regularly traveling with him on his many foreign trips. But for me, what happened that night at Moscow’s airport remains as one of the most revealing incidents that I witnessed, a minor moment that said so much about the power of John Paul II. It demonstrated the fear that this Polish pope inspired in the Soviet Union, even at a time when the old guard still appeared firmly in command — and almost no one could envisage the collapse of communism that would begin in Poland by the end of the decade and quickly bring the entire system crashing down with it.

But looking at events from their perspective, the Soviet authorities were absolutely right to fear a key chain featuring John Paul and Lech Walesa. Any assessment of this pope’s place in the history of the church and of the last century will note that he helped trigger the incredible sequence of events that would bring about the implosion of the Soviet empire and its totalitarian system. With John Paul now visibly ailing, slowed by advanced Parkinson’s disease and arthritis, the report cards on his pontificate are already beginning to be drawn up, his accomplishments and shortcomings hotly debated.

Let me be blunt about my own preliminary judgment. I’m convinced John Paul II will go down in history as one of the greatest popes ever, whose intense spirituality, intellectual brilliance and sheer physical stamina are beyond dispute. I’m also convinced that he has left some extremely difficult issues to his successor — issues he hasn’t confronted and hasn’t been willing to open up for serious discussion.

John Paul II’s impact

It’s hard to overstate this pope’s impact, reach and visibility. Consider the fact that his constant travels, which have taken him to more than 100 countries, have meant that he has logged the equivalent of three times the distance between the earth and the moon. Those of us who accompanied him, riding in what would be the economy class of the chartered papal plane, often felt as if we were part of an endless marathon, and our biggest challenge was just to keep up. On long stretches in the air, we couldn’t tune out completely since we had to be prepared with the right question in case the pope made one of his walkabouts through our section. The pope, who speaks an amazing array of languages with varying degrees of proficiency, had the daunting habit of answering questions in whatever language the questioner used.

There were also the slightly surrealistic moments, particularly when local carriers were used as the papal plane instead of Alitalia, which usually provided this service. Richard Roth of CBS recalls a ride on an Air Gabon charter where the pilot announced: “Your Holiness, Eminences, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, the duty-free shop is now open.”

On a 1983 trip to Central America, we were loaded onto a Honduran airliner for a flight across rugged, mountainous terrain. At one point, the plane started losing altitude. At first, there were a few jokes in the press section about the next day’s coverage: “Pope Dies in Plane Crash” in huge type, with a tiny wire service item buried deep in the package: “Dozens of journalists also killed.” But as the flight dropped lower and lower, silence descended on our cabin. We watched the Boeing 737 drop to within a couple of hundred yards over the treetops of a village before pulling up sharply and barely making it over the next mountain range. Later, we learned that the pope had been asked to bless the Honduran president’s village as the plane flew over it, and the president had ordered the pilot to drop as low as possible to make that blessing stick.

The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul II has broken precedent after precedent, not just in terms of travel. One of the most significant examples has been his reaching out to those of other faiths, particularly Jews. He became the first pope in history to visit a synagogue, the first to visit a mosque. Another has been his willingness to apologize for the Catholic church’s sins — for its treatment of Jews, for the Crusades, for its persecution of Galileo. American Catholics may have wanted something even stronger, but his speech to the American cardinals visiting Rome last April about the sexual scandals was incredibly blunt by Vatican standards.

If his image is sometimes larger than life, he is also resolutely human. As a young pope, he continued to ski, swim and hike, which his predecessors would never have thought of doing. And even now when he is old and ailing, he maintains his self-deprecating sense of humor. After his trip to Poland in August 2002, when he attracted a crowd of nearly 3 million for a Mass on Krakow’s Blonie meadow, he invited Maciej Zieba, the head of the Dominican order in Poland, for lunch with him at the Vatican. Zieba congratulated the pope on the “great event” in Krakow. “I remember a bigger event,” the pope responded. He then told Zieba about a school outing in 1933 to the same site. The occasion was a military parade where Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, the prewar Polish leader, reviewed the troops. “That was a great event,” the pope concluded. As Zieba puts it, “He still has a sense of irony.”

And there have been plenty of ironies in Karol Wojtyla’s career. Perhaps the greatest one was how the communist authorities in Poland misread him early on. Since he talked about faith and culture, not about what passed for politics, they believed he could be easily manipulated. As George Weigel points out in his excellent biography Witness to Hope, party ideologist Zenon Kliszko vetoed seven candidates the church put forward to be bishops in the early 1960s; at that time the government had the power to block nominations. “I’m waiting for Wojtyla,” Kliszko said, “and I’ll continue to veto names until I get him.” He got him soon enough, when Wojtyla was named archbishop of Krakow in 1964. The communists soon regretted their decision, but it was too late.

The pope’s commitment to faith and culture proved profoundly subversive. When I was reporting on the fate of religion in Eastern and Central Europe, I became aware of the scope of his encouragement for the faithful in places like the Ukraine and Czechoslovakia, where persecution was the norm. It wasn’t just his public prayers for the “hidden churches” or his appointments of new bishops for these churches, even if they had to remain in exile. I talked with one of the Polish priests, dressed in civilian clothes, who traveled to parts of the Soviet Union to hold secret Masses. As late as 1989, I went to a secret Mass in the western Ukrainian city of Lvov that was attended by dissidents who had spent as many as 18 years in the gulag.

If the pope was willing to promote clandestine activities when necessary, his greatest contribution to the downfall of communism wasn’t covert at all. In public pronouncements on his visits to Poland and at every possible opportunity, he bore a simple message: faith matters, the truth matters, freedom matters, injustice must be condemned. His audiences knew what truths and what injustices without his having to spell them out, without his taking any overtly political stands. He encouraged such dissidents as Poland’s Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel to live “as if” they were free, undermining the elaborate system of lies that the communist system depended upon to survive. Once the pretenses were stripped away, more and more people realized they weren’t alone with their dissident thoughts and began to act upon them. In talking about Europe’s common spiritual genealogy, the pope was, in his own way, signaling that the Iron Curtain had to come down.

Those convictions flowed directly from his Polish upbringing and his encounters with both of the 20th century’s brutal totalitarian systems — Hitler’s and Stalin’s. His rejection of any system that crushed the individual, that degraded people into objects, was instinctive. So was his rejection of anti-Semitism, which he occasionally witnessed growing up in Poland. His effort to reach out to Jews and others of different faiths can be traced to the same roots.

While the most dramatic public manifestations could be seen when he visited Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, I was struck by a smaller, private gesture. A few years ago, I spent a long afternoon interviewing a Polish priest who had discovered, only at age 35 when his “mother” told him the truth, that he was a Jew by birth. His natural parents had pleaded with a Polish Catholic couple to save the baby by adopting him as their own during the Nazi occupation. Until he learned more about his origins, he decided to tell only one person: the then newly elected pope. He wrote to John Paul II that his Jewish origins made him feel a special bond to the successor of Peter, a Jewish apostle. The pope’s warm reply began with the words “Beloved Brother.”

The pope and capitalism

The pope’s rejection of totalitarian ideologies and anything that smacks of racism or persecution doesn’t mean he uncritically embraces liberal democracy and capitalism. At the same Mass in Krakow that attracted nearly 3 million of the faithful, he reiterated his frequent message about the dangers of the “noisy propaganda of liberalism” and “freedom without responsibility,” and denounced man’s attempts, whether by genetic engineering or euthanasia, to interfere “in the mystery of human life.” He can sound like a scold when he also talks about the dangers of hedonism and consumerism, of a system that too often treats materialism as an end in itself and forgets spiritual values.

Zieba, the Polish priest who wrote The Popes and Capitalism, points out that the pontiff’s view of capitalism is quite different than of totalitarian systems. “Capitalism can produce a very creative culture or a very merciless one,” Zieba notes. “It depends on us. It can be exploitative and lose touch with God.” The pope believes that what determines the type of capitalism that emerges isn’t structural, it’s the human component — how people are educated. If the “human ecology” of capitalism is polluted then you get a corrupted system, Zieba adds; the way to clean up the pollution is to impart the right values. The pope has praised the freedoms capitalism can provide — the encouragement of entrepreneurs, allowing people to develop their talents to the fullest. But he opposes any “ideology” of capitalism that excuses its worst excesses. In light of the recent wave of corporate scandals, it’s too bad this part of his message often failed to register.

The issue of celibacy

As inspiring and visionary as this pope has often been, there has always been an undercurrent of discontent with some aspects of his reign. When I covered the Vatican in the early 1980s, some of the curia — the cabinet that assists the pope in governing the church — complained about his preoccupation with Poland and the number of Poles in his entourage. Those complaints faded later, especially once the results in his homeland won universal applause. But a more persistent and significant criticism is that John Paul II hasn’t done more to curb the power of the curia. “We are suffering from overcentralization,” a senior member of the curia admitted to me in 1982. “This clerical life of Rome remains a bit of a royal court, with some of the mentality of Louis XIV.” At the time, this could be ascribed to a holdover culture from previous popes, but today internal critics claim that centralization has increased rather than decreased under John Paul II’s rule.

When I recently asked a Polish cleric who has worked in the Vatican about the negative side of the ledger when it comes to this pope’s record, he mentioned the “fear of innovation” in much of the church, due in part to the appointment of weak bishops. He also pointed out that the synods of bishops, which should counterbalance the power of the curia, “are not what they should be.” They are only consultants, and they haven’t been able to develop the new ideas that are needed in this time when the church’s traditional base — Europe and the United States — is suffering from a growing shortage of priests (with Poland a very big exception). While the pope has done a remarkable job of reaching out to the Third World, the crisis in vocations is only one manifestation of the broader problems facing the church in the countries where its influence is visibly declining.

It would seem only natural, for instance, that the synod would discuss making celibacy optional for priests, something that exists in the Eastern or Ukrainian Rite Catholic Church. But the pope’s adamant opposition has meant that no such discussion has taken place. Nor has the synod discussed the awkward situation the church found itself in with married men who were secretly ordained as priests in Czechoslovakia during the communist era. While they were formally ordained as Eastern Rite Catholic priests, those distinctions hardly seemed important at a time when the church was persecuted by the communist authorities. The practice in the underground, anti-communist church was to allow married priests to help keep the faith alive, and they regularly said Roman Catholic Masses and administered the sacraments. The fact that they were married helped disguise their clerical status.

In 1999, I went to the Czech Republic to see what had happened to those married priests after the downfall of communism. Initially, they were told that they no longer could say Mass. They felt bitter that the Vatican seemed to have turned on them. “It was a time when priests who had collaborated with the secret police were given the green light, and we were given the red light,” Vaclav Ventura, a married priest, told me. Eventually, church leaders came up with a compromise and established an Eastern Rite diocese in the Czech Republic, which admitted several of the married priests. But most of their parishioners are Roman Catholics, who had become used to them saying Mass. The married priests now can only say Roman Catholic Mass in the company of a celibate Roman Catholic priest. This is despite the fact most of the new “Eastern Rite” priests were brought up as Roman Catholics, and that they could help plug the holes created by the shortage of priests in the Czech Republic.

While these contortions may be understandable, they reflect an unwillingness of the church to confront the issue of celibacy directly. Similarly, the pope has ruled out any discussion of the ordination of women. According to clerics who know the pope well, he believes that Christ’s decision to be surrounded by male apostles needs to be respected. As for celibacy, he is strongly convinced that this allows priests to devote themselves fully to the church and to experience a deeper kind of love than erotic love. He is also against anything that smacks of loosening the requirements for the priesthood, arguing that this would be both wrong and ineffective. His supporters note that Protestant churches which now ordain women have hardly enjoyed a surge in vocations.

Regardless of the merits of the idea of changing any rules, the church should be capable of airing the issues that are already being discussed informally — and are very much on the minds of many of the faithful. A recent survey of American priests, taken for the National Federation of Priests’ Council, revealed that 56 percent believe celibacy should be a matter of personal choice. One cleric who knows the pope well says the pontiff is “physically pained” by the crisis in the American church triggered by the wave of revelations about sexual abuse. But that hasn’t softened his opposition to discussing either celibacy or the ordination of women.

An even more telling omission may be the lack of serious discussion of the church’s position on birth control, especially in the era of the AIDS epidemic. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a change in the church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and genetic engineering. But, as the Polish cleric with long Vatican experience pointed out to me recently, the pope no longer routinely mentions birth control as part of that litany of dangers. He used to do so regularly. What accounts for this omission? The Polish cleric offers what he calls merely a guess: that, while the pope almost certainly hasn’t changed his views, he may have been confronted with arguments that have made him hesitant on the subject.

Which brings up one of the final ironies about John Paul II. As he reaches the end of his remarkable papacy, this leader who urged everyone to speak the truth, who spoke out again and again on the most sensitive subjects, is now often seen as the defender of the status quo who would prefer silence to open debate on the issues that most often divide and trouble the faithful. As great as his legacy will be, it’s unfortunate that this, too, will be a part of it.

Andrew Nagorski is a senior editor at Newsweek International. His latest book is Last Stop Vienna, a novel about the early days of the Nazi movement, published by Simon & Schuster.