Pope John Paul II: Memories to Cherish

June 1979

John Paul II: 'An Iron Handshake and a Smile'

by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

St. Anthony Messenger
June 1979

I’m sure Paul VI is smiling in heaven. And if there are any coffee breaks, others who suffered in the papacy must come up to him and say, “Man, you had a hard act to follow, but this one might even be harder.” Now that the weight of the office has been lifted from his shy and introspective temperament, Paul can watch with relaxed satisfaction as the new man in Rome forms a megaphone with his hands and shouts for people to pay attention to the blessing he has forgotten to give, or walks into a lions’ den of reporters, or eats an athlete’s breakfast of eggs and Polish sausage.

If Pope John XXIII really told Paul VI, “that Hamlet up there in Milan,” to cheer up, he would now have to tell a walking dynamo from Poland to slow down—and please take a siesta, like a good Italian.

Objections have already been made to the simplistic pinning of labels on John Paul II—conservative or liberal, pastoral or intellectual, tough or smiling. Nevertheless, one set of adjectives from Roget's Thesaurus will surely fill his biography: vigorous, dynamic, forceful, enthusiastic—not only as an athlete ("half" the cardinals in Poland were skiers) or as a tough negotiator with Communists in Poland (lights burned late in Krakow the day after he was elected), but as someone who has the courage to be his own man.

This statement may sound like a criticism of proper Pope Paul VI, but it isn't. Even such a strong personality as Pope Pius XII arrived for Mass exactly when the protocol experts told him to. But John Paul II astounded those same Emily Posts of the Vatican by making a speech on his first appearance on that famous balcony, instead of giving only the traditional blessing. Backstairs gossip at the Vatican has it that during a public appearance he answered an attendant persistently whispering "Basta!" ("Enough!") at his shoulder with "I'm the pope, and I know how to behave!"

Even supposing labeling is possible, it will be harder in the case of the new Pope than with his predecessors. It may not be too far from the truth to say that he may ultimately be characterized as evenhanded, inclined to balance a move to the East with a move to the West; not exactly "steering a middle course," but rather listening to both sides of the question. His vigor will sometimes be the steel of Paul of Tarsus, sometimes the quiet persistence of Mother Teresa. He has given clear signs that there is some Hamlet in him, too—not indecisiveness, but broad vision.

Harvard theologian George Williams, a Protestant who befriended him a decade ago, says of him, "He is an imposing man in physique, big in intellectual vision, who deeply enjoys people. In a most remarkable way, he is a man whose soul is at leisure with itself."

The Importance of Being Polish

The fact that he is Polish—and indeed that he lived in pre- and post-war Poland—is, of course, one of the greatest factors in explaining his personality and his characteristic way of acting. One observer has said that "he combines the fierce faith of the Polish Catholic with a sophisticated grasp of contemporary philosophy and Marxist dialectic."

Obviously the Polish factor can be exaggerated. There are probably quite a few Paul VI's in Poland, and just as many John XXIII's. Karol Wojtyla, like all of us, is a unique individual.

Nevertheless, the stamp of the Polish experience—both of Church and state—is on him. And it goes much deeper than having borscht and kielbasa for Christmas dinner, and Vatican Radio broadcasting Mass in Polish.

Thirty-three of his 58 years were spent in the struggle of a powerful national Catholicism against a militant Marxist regime. In that confrontation, there has been little time for Polish Catholics to argue about issues like priestly celibacy, the pill, divorce, wayward theologians, deserted churches and new catechetics. In the front lines, a soldier's thoughts may touch only fleetingly on lesser crises: The point is to stay alive.

So the natural set of Karol Wojtyla's jaw may have been tightened by his long years of combat. He seems to be signaling the rest of the Church that a sturdier discipline may be one answer to some problems besetting her today.

The Polish Church has thrived on adversity, and has fought its way to greater freedom than is enjoyed by any other people of the Soviet bloc. Despite the fact that professing Catholicism may cost one dearly at school or on the job, 60 percent of the population attends Sunday Mass. Polish seminaries are full and vocations of women religious are flourishing.

The pope comes, then, from an arena where the main issues were black and white. His natural tendency, therefore, may be toward a Church marching in solidarity and obedience, with "clear doctrine" as "the only pastoral solution to many problems today." Coming from a Church that maintained fervor on a sparse diet of freedom and funds, he will bring the lesson of Poland to the rest of the Church, whether poor and afflicted or rich and comfortable.

There are some who wonder whether he can come to a worldview from such a background. Indications are that he can. Seeing him as a black-and-white hardliner for Marine Corps discipline is to fall into the simplistic labeling spoken of above. His Polish experience has either produced or confirmed a give-and-take style.

He spoke out vehemently against Communist injustice, yet he was able to deal flexibly with the government. Even Polish government spokesmen admitted at his election that he was a "man of dialogue." As one writer has said, "Few if any clergymen have ever walked such a narrow line between the needs of a proud and independent Church and the demands of a Communist regime, and emerged with the goodwill of both sides."

Unlike Cardinal Wyszynski, who went to prison rather than accept the dicta of the atheist regime, John Paul II considers persuasion a more effective weapon than confrontation. Now, probably, from a broader pulpit, he will want to increase discussions in the hope of achieving fuller religious freedom.

As one churchman has said, "He believes in the art of the possible" (which, incidentally, is one definition of politics). He not only understands the mentality and methods of the Communists, but also has a grasp of the realities of power in the Soviet bloc. He has few illusions as to what is and what is not possible.

It seems idle to object, then, that the pope comes to the Vatican with a limited background and that it will be difficult for him to understand, say, the feelings of U.S. nuns or Latin American activists. If the pope did not have to struggle through some issues, which bother Christians elsewhere than Poland, he is not unaware or unsympathetic. Cardinal Dearden has said, "He is aware of these issues, through travels, reading and work at the Vatican Council, even though he lacks firsthand experience with them." A priest who knew him says, "He brings openness, closeness to people and a willingness to consult. If we're lucky, we’ll have the best of both worlds—a steadfast faith and a response to modem human needs."

Still more reassuring are the words of an American bishop: "You're with him for a day, and you know you've got a saint on your hands."

Conservative and/or Liberal?

Early labeling saw the new pope as "traditional in doctrine but progressive in understanding the diversity of the modern Church."

"Traditional" to headline-writers seems to mean being "agin" just about everything from abortion to multicolored vestments. Most Catholics were not naïve enough—though apparently some reporters were—to think that even if he were to the left of the theologian Hans Küng, he would announce on his second day in office that 50,000 women would be immediately ordained, that all priests should get a marriage license, and that infallibility, purgatory and the Assumption of Mary would be stored indefinitely in the Vatican basement; or, if he were to the right of Archbishop LeFebvre, that he would, before breakfast or while still in the Sistine Chapel, order the translation of the Baltimore catechism in 157 languages, design an ankle-length habit for sisters, and make all seminarians speak Latin.

The new pope left no doubt, immediately, about his position on celibacy, abortion, the unbreakable nature of marriage. But these are scarcely in the same "dogmatic" category as the following, lumped with them in a Reuters dispatch which gravely reported that he "told priests and nuns to wear traditional dress, rejected Anglican calls for intercommunion, emphasized worship [!] of the Virgin Mary, and told priests to stay out of politics."

He made it clear that he wants no "arbitrary and uncontrolled innovations" in the liturgy (apparently a reference to some Third World countries), but at the same time warned against "resistance to that which has been legitimately prescribed and introduced in the sacred rites."

At Vatican II, he consistently showed an open attitude. He took an active part in drafting some of the documents and defended the "Religious Liberty" statement of John Courtney Murray. In the discussion of the document on the Church, he urged that the statement speak about "the people of God" before the hierarchy. When it seemed that there was enough opposition to have the document on religious liberty dropped, he and several bishops from Eastern Europe took the lead in insisting on a firm statement. At the same time he opposed the demands from some emigre groups for a strong condemnation of atheism. After the Council, he strongly criticized a Roman document on collegiality for not going far enough in the direction of power-sharing by the bishops.

A longtime correspondent and press aide of the pope, John Szostak, wrote, "It is safe for me to say, from my personal observation of the man, that Pope John Paul II is not a liberal or a conservative, but a pragmatist who is in tune with the times we live in."

Warmhearted and Human

The pope will face and make many hard decisions that will not please liberals, conservatives and, possibly, even pragmatists. But he has the elusive quality of "charisma." This is more than kissing babies, wearing giant Mexican sombreros, though, to be honest, his involvement in dramatics as a young man will not hurt. (A highly placed churchman found himself in hot water [not with the pope) for allegedly joshing about the pope's being something of a "ham.")

John Paul instantly gave his "reign" a human dimension—daring to give a talk at his very first appearance, following John Paul I's example of saying "I" instead of "we," weeping openly on at least three occasions during the first 24 hours after his election, driving across Rome to visit an old friend who was ill, asking the cardinals to bless each other and to bless him—instead of his giving the traditional papal blessing.

Once he was stopped during a public appearance, by the sight of an eight-year-old boy with tears in his eyes. "What's the matter?" he asked. "My father died three days ago," the boy said, "but they told me you too were my father. Is that true?" The pope bent down and hugged him. "Certainly it is," he said. "And you may call on me as you would your father." He made sure an aide got the boy's name and address.

At Christmas, when he stopped to view a crib in a working-class neighborhood, 22-year-old sales clerk Vittoria Ianni went up to the pope and said, "Holy Father, I am getting married in March. Would you celebrate the wedding?" Immediately he said, "Fine, yes." And so she was married to Mario Maltese, an alarm installer, in the Pauline Chapel, beneath the last frescoes of Michelangelo.

The pope made four trips outside the Vatican in the first two weeks after his election, visiting aging Cardinals Wright, Iorio and Ottaviani.

As the months went by, he continued to be his own man. On November 5 he flew to Assisi by helicopter and later traveled across Rome by car to honor the two patron saints of Italy, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena. “I come as a pilgrim to Assisi, to the feet of the holy poor man Francis, who inscribed the gospel of Christ in the hearts of the people of his time."

He called St. Catherine a visible sign of the mission of women in the Church. "The Church is also a mother and spouse—biblical expressions which clearly reveal how deeply the mission of women is inscribed in the mystery of the Church."

Emerging Emphasis: Human Dignity, Human Rights

In his Christmas message he said, "The service of Peter is essentially a commitment of dedication and love. My humble ministry seeks to be just that."

Looking at the world, he saw how precarious was its peace. "Where there is no justice, there can be no peace. Where there is no respect for human rights, inalienable, inherent in man as man—there can be no peace. Where there is no moral formation that favors the good, there can be no peace, because it is always necessary to watch out for and contain the damaging tendencies that are concealed in the heart."

In his peace message on January 1, World Day of Peace, he said, "I take from the hands of my revered predecessor the pilgrim's staff of peace. I am on the road at your side, with the gospel of peace."

Peace means reconciliation of human beings with each other and with their natural universe. The way to peace can be opened up by "the search for simpler ways of life that are less exposed to the tyrannical pressures of the instincts of possessing, consuming and dominating, and more open to the deep rhythms of personal creativity and friendship.

"The honor and effectiveness in negotiating with opponents are not measured by the degree of inflexibility in defending one's interests, but by the participants' capacity for respect, truth, benevolence and brotherhood—or, let us say, by their humanity."

A speech praising doctors who defied Italy's abortion law produced bitter opposition from leftist parties in Italy who accused him of meddling in the "internal affairs" of the country. He was accused of "politics" for his statement that the Church has not only the right but also the duty of defending "the principle of absolute mutual fidelity unto death" in marriage and "respect for new life from the moment of conception."

On January 10 he drew the fire of women's libbers by saying that "motherhood is the vocation of the woman. It was yesterday. It is today. It will always be." The world today is hungry and thirsty for that motherhood which is physically and spiritually the vocation of woman, as it was Mary's. It is necessary to do everything to make certain that "the authority of the woman-mother is not diminished in family, social and public life."

At a January 12 reception for diplomats, he appealed again for respect for religious freedom and touched on the problems of peace. The Church seeks to contribute by its own means to the establishment of order based on justice and peace. "Many contemporaries seem to show a special understanding for this scale of values, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Dag Hammarskjold, the Rev. Martin Luther King."

Mexico: The Broadening Stream

John Paul II could easily have avoided his "theological baptism" as pope by avoiding the Puebla meeting of Latin American bishops. It had been scheduled long before he was elected, and he would be in office only three months, hardly enough time to begin absorbing the international pulls and tugs at his office. Yet he plunged into the exhausting tour with his usual gusto—and probably for reasons on both sides of the fence: first, to dramatize his primary concern for human rights and social justice; second, to caution clergy against revolutionary means to these ends.

From the moment he kissed the ground at San Salvador till he waved good-bye at Mexico City 10 days later, John Paul electrified Latin America. He drew the largest crowds in Mexican history. During his tour, 18 million people saw him in person, and of course millions more on TV. He gave 28 speeches, 17 of them major policy statements. He met with bishops, priests, religious seminarians, university students, athletes, journalists, sick children, Indians and poor families. His manner and message gave pope-watchers some clues for the future.

On the flight over, he surprised journalists by walking back to their compartment as soon as the seat-belt sign was turned off, and remained for an 80-minute conversation.

The Alitalia jet landed at Santo Domingo on January 15, and the pope hurried down the steps and knelt to kiss the soil of the island where the first Mass was said in the Americas. He showed his already well-known devotion to Mary by presenting Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, with a diadem.

At an open-air Mass for a quarter of a million people, he noted that Santo Domingo was the first place in the New World where missionaries sought to protect the weak, the undefended, the natives. In the poverty-stricken slum of Los Mina, 40,000 enthusiastic residents cheered "Juan Pablo." "You should not be shouting 'Juan Pablo,’ but 'Jesu Christo,' " he said. When children sang him a hymn in Polish, he laughed, "I never thought there were so many Polish people here!"

At Mexico City he was greeted by millions. In haltingly precise but well-accented Spanish, he read his first message in the national cathedral, speaking directly to divisions within the Church, criticizing both right and left: those on the left who "in the name of misinformed propheticism have launched themselves on a risky and utopian construction of a so-called Church of the future"; and those on the right "cannot be considered faithful who remain attached to incidental aspects of the Church, which were valid in the past but which have been superseded."

He said Mexicans were faithful like the Catholics in his native Poland, their faith exemplified by the Virgin of Guadalupe. He praised Catholics for clinging to the faith despite the anti-clericalism which dates back to the killings of the '20s and '30s. "Perhaps of all the teachings that the Virgin Mary gives to our children in Mexico, perhaps the most beautiful and important is that of fidelity—that fidelity which the pope is happy to discover here, and expects from the Mexican people."

At the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe he urged bishops and all Catholics to stress evangelization. He praised Medellin, where 10 years before the Latin American bishops had made strong statements on social justice, but said interpretations had been given which were sometimes contradictory and not always correct or beneficial to the Church.

It was while he was in Mexico City that he made the statement which was headlined as a damper on the whole social justice movement. Speaking to priests and members of religious orders, he said, "You are not social directors, political leaders or functionaries of a temporal power. So I repeat to you: Let us not pretend to serve the gospel if we try to dilute our charism through an exaggerated interest in the broad field of temporal problems," Still, "You are witnesses of the love of Christ for mankind, a love for all that excludes no one, even though it is directed more particularly to the poorest," At Puebla he would add, "It is to the laity, though not exclusively to them, that secular duties and activity belong."

'No' to Liberation Theology?

The phrase "liberation theology" has become a bone of contention between activist and conservative Catholics. On the plane coming from Rome, the pope is reported as saying, "You know that liberation theology is a true theology. But perhaps it is also a false theology, because if one starts to politicize theology, apply doctrines of political systems, ways of analysis that are not Christian, then it is no longer theology. That is the problem. Theology of liberation, yes, but which one?"

But the crowds sensed only the drama of the first pope to visit their country. They filled rooftops, hung from lampposts, and pelted him with confetti and rose petals. At the airport, the band broke into a lively tune, and someone handed him a broad-brimmed gray sombrero, which he promptly donned.

Typically, at an entertainment of Indian dancers, when aides wanted them to end their performance, he grabbed the microphone and requested an encore.

In a major speech opening the Third Assembly of Latin American bishops at Puebla, he declared that the Church was firmly and by its very nature committed to fighting injustice, but sharply warned against aligning the Church with any particular socioeconomic solution to human woes. The Church's mission of preaching the gospel demands that it do all in its power to end injustice and make systems and structures more human. Church leaders must continue to fight for a more equal distribution of wealth and for human rights—this at a time when a Gallup poll in the U.S. showed one percent of the people interested in human rights.

The pope rejected any theory of liberation based on violence of class struggle, as well as any attempt to portray Christ as a politician, a rebel against Roman authorities, or a pre-Marxist engaged in class struggle. "This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechesis."

He reaffirmed the Church's faith: Jesus Christ, the word and Son of God, becomes man in order to come close to man and to offer him salvation, the great gift of God. The first and foremost truth that the Church owes to man is the truth about man.

At a Mass in Puebla, he learned one of the pitfalls of constant public speaking. With hundreds of the poor present, he said that in the midst of suffering there are still "the simple joys of the poor, in the humble shacks of the peasants, the Indians, the immigrants." At the words "joys of the poor," a hiss came from some in the crowd.

But if anyone thought that the dictators of Latin America could rest easy because he had cautioned priests not to be political leaders, the pope made clear that social justice would be one of the dominant emphases of his pontificate. He himself made what could only be called "political" statements right and left.

At the dusty southern town of Cuilapan, he met the common people after two days with the clergy. He made his strongest plea for improving the lot of the downtrodden, and criticized rich landowners who "hide the bread needed by so many families." While the Church respects private property, he said, expropriation (the state taking or modifying property rights of an individual) might be appropriate "if done in the proper manner." It is not fair, he said, or humane or Christian to continue certain truly unjust practices.

He put on the multicolored feathered headdress worn by one of the Indian dancers who entertained him.

At Guadalajara, he appealed for a war on illiteracy, and asked the wealthy to forsake "some of what is theirs" and to promote greater justice so that "none can lack adequate nourishment, clothing, housing, culture and employment."

Again he was the evenhanded wise leader, trying to hear all sides of the problem. As one reporter put it, "he steered a middle course between preaching the traditional faith and urging involvement in the region's awesome human needs, without ignoring his role as a spiritual father to the throngs that came to see him."

On the plane going back to Rome, a major TV network's representative asked him whether his Puebla speech was not full of contradictions. He answered that it was not. "But," he added, "if you want to find contradiction, you can always find it."

It seems the pope is going to suffer the same fate as the Bible. He will be quoted to prove both sides of a question.

His First Encyclical and Letter to Priests

In March, the pope issued his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man). It was the first encyclical by a pope since Paul VI's Humanae Vitae in 1968.

It is a massive piece of work which will require intensive study. In it, as one observer has said, "the pope has given his subtle and sophisticated intellect full scope and play." (He might have added that the translator's mother must have been frightened by a monosyllable.)

The encyclical has been called the pope's "Christian anthropology." There is no doubt about its central theme: the supreme dignity of every human being—"each and every" human being. Everyone is "a sharer in Jesus Christ....In a certain way he has united himself to every human being." The central fact about man is his salvation in Jesus. In taking our flesh, "God gave human life the dimension he intended us to have from the beginning."

Christ reveals us to ourselves. In him we find again the "greatness, dignity and value that belongs to humanity." Jesus is the one who brings us freedom based on truth, frees us from what, as it were, breaks off our freedom at its root.

The Church serves this one purpose: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk the path of life with each one.

"We are not dealing here with abstract 'man,' but with each person in his or her unique and unrepeatable reality."

Man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission since everyone without exception has been redeemed by Christ and is in a way united to him, even when they are unaware of it.

The judgment of all modem progress and technology must be: Does it make each human being more mature, spiritually more aware of the dignity of his or her humanity?

In January the pope had let it be known that "for the time being" there would be no further laicization of priests. He returned to the matter of celibacy during Holy Week in a letter addressed to all priests.

The priesthood is given so that priests can "unceasingly serve others," and "cannot be renounced because of the difficulties we meet," he wrote. The priest's vocation is to have "a special solicitude for the salvation of our neighbor."

Through celibacy, the priest becomes a "man for others" in a way different from a married man, the pope maintained. Celibacy freely chosen has great social meaning, both as a sign pointing to eternity and as a present value.

Right Man in the Right Place

John Paul II has brought a fresh new strength to the papacy, after the long, wearing years when Paul VI fought to hold the Church on her course during the turbulence of "future shock." From all Pope John Paul has done and said thus far, his pontificate promises to be energetic, courageous and very human. He will probably demand more discipline from us, and a greater commitment to respecting the human dignity and securing the human rights of every human being—a political-spiritual task. His ideal may well be summed up by the famous line of St. Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive."

He gives indications of welcoming and promoting collegiality. He will find common ground with Communists and atheists, right and left, for his deeper characteristic seems to be an ability to see both sides of any question. The fight for survival was black and white in Poland's Church, but he is not naive about the complexities of modern life.

Peter Hebblethwaite in his 1978 book, The Year of Three Popes, tells of a pastoral letter Cardinal Wojtyla wrote, discussing, among other things, the different interpretations of the conflict between King Boleslaw the Bold and Bishop Stanislaw. Church historians had always maintained that Stanislaw was a holy man who had courageously denounced the moral turpitude of the King. But from the 19th century on, secular-minded historians presented Stanislaw as a meddlesome prelate who got no more than he deserved. "Wojtyla used this incident to illustrate the ambiguities of history. He left his hearers to decide whether there was an application to contemporary Poland, where things are not always what they seem and the miasma of ambiguity hovers over everything."

It is interesting that his dissertation was written on the Spanish mystical poet St. John of the Cross, for whom faith appears as a series of paradoxes, a darkness that illuminates, a music that is soundless.

"A complex man, remarkable in that it is impossible to pin a label on him," is the verdict of a renowned handwriting analyst, Robert Wasserman. "The one characteristic that stands out clearly is his genuine fondness for people. He is a person of deep warmth, willing to change but not quick to change."

By his ability to distinguish, for instance, between different kinds of liberation theology, different kinds of work for social justice, different kinds of work for clergy and laity, he may indeed be what Cardinal Koenig of Austria called him: the right man in the right place.

Perhaps he stated his ideal when he quoted Isaiah (42:1-4) in his first New Year's greeting: "Here is my servant whom I uphold....He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth."


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