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 downand please take a siesta, like a good
Objections have already been made to the simplistic pinning of
labels on John Paul IIconservative 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, enthusiasticnot 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
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, toonot 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 Polishand indeed that he lived in pre-
and post-war Polandis, 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 experienceboth of Church
and stateis 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 worldsa steadfast faith and a response to modem human
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 enoughthough apparently
some reporters wereto 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 dimensiondaring
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 himinstead
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 spousebiblical
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 manthere
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
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 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
"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 brotherhoodor, 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 gustoand 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
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 fidelitythat
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
'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
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 rightsthis
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
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
"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
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 beinga
political-spiritual task. His ideal may well be summed up by the
famous line of St. Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully
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
"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."