COVER STORY

POPE AS SUPERSTAR

Warren Gerrard October 8 1979
COVER STORY

POPE AS SUPERSTAR

Warren Gerrard October 8 1979

In one brief year his style has revolutionized the stolid Vatican. He attracts unprecedented numbers of fans to his Wednesday audiences in St. Peter’s Square. There, he weaves through the crowds standing on the back of a white jeep nicknamed the Popemobile. Italy’s tourist industry has increased 10 per cent since he was chosen. At times the enthusiasm for him borders on frenzy. On one occasion he had to fend off a crowd of excited nuns who tore every button off the papal cassock and one is said to have tried to bite his ear. He radiates authority and strength and behind the folds of his robes are real muscles formed from swimming, skiing, hiking and mountain climbing. He moves through crowds as if he were a politician on the campaign trail—touching, talking, embracing, kissing babies, agreeing to marry couples, volunteering to baptize infants.

The surprise continues, even one year after the hushed crowd in St. Peter’s Square was told that an obscure Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, had been elected Pope, the first non-Italian pontiff since 1522.

Little was known then about John Paul II, but within a few weeks the Italian press had dubbed him the Vatican Superstar. Since his reign began, the robust, outgoing 59-year-old pontiff, the youngest in centuries, has put some razzle-dazzle into the protocol-bound papacy. Unlike those before him—the gentle, intellectually aloof Paul VI, or the grandfatherly, smiling John Paul I, who reigned only 34 days— the “foreign” Pope exudes a vigorous, rosy-cheeked, down-to-earth charm and a bent for the theatrical. He truly plays at the centre stage of the Roman Catholic Church and is one of the most popular world figures in recent times.

He is featured on a record in which his rich baritone voice sings six folk and religious songs, alone and with students, during his Polish pilgrimage. An Italian rock group has even written a disco song about him. It has been a long time, if ever, since the Vicar of Christ has had such a strong earthly image. Much of it results from his natural ability to exploit the media. After all, he was an actor before a priest. His exposure has been immense and he hasn’t been shy about his performances. And now, after his triumphs in Rome, Mexico and Poland, he has once again set out into the world.

Last Saturday, he arrived in Ireland. No Pope had been there before and this Pope came 1,542 years after St. Patrick brought Christianity to the emerald isle. His Boeing 747, escorted by four Irish military jets, banked low over a throng of more than one million people collected in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and their cheers drowned the noise of the engines.

The Superstar had landed. He kissed the earth and brought his own style to the proceedings, ducking through anxious escorts to shake hands and to kiss the faces of children. He delighted the crowd with the opening words of his address when he quoted the words of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint: “I too have heard the voice of the Irish calling me.” He was asked about the stringent security and he replied in typically casual style: “Security, security: one has to think of that, but I am travelling in the hand of God.”

Later, at Drogheda, 30 miles from the border that divides Irishmen, he took the unusual step of speaking directly to men and women involved in the violence which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives in 10 years. “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the work of justice. Further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love.”

After two days in Ireland the next stop was to be the U.S. where the Pope’s schedule is a gruelling test of stamina. He has lost 15 pounds since his election—the result of 18-hour days and recent pilgrimages. The schedule called for him to be in Boston on Monday, New York City on Tuesday, Philadelphia on Wednesday, Des Moines on Thursday, Chicago on Friday and Washington over the weekend (see box).

This trip and the one planned later this year for the Philippines serve only to reinforce what everybody already knows about this Pope: he has enormous skill with crowds, a love of people and what seems to be a compulsion to be with his flock. He is a truly pastoral Pope. And he is more. He is a tough disciplinarian and a doctrinal conservative. He is bringing about a stability to the church that is unwelcome among many progressive Catholics.

His writings, prose and poetry alike, reflect an all-abiding concern with social justice and the rights and dignity of man. Yet his theological outlook appears narrow. He caused a fresh furore in Italy over abortion when he condemned the “annihilation and destruction of unborn children.” Abortion was legalized there in 1978—but only after years of bitter controversy.

Last April, he wrote a 10,000-word letter to priests in which he urged them to keep faith with their commitment to celibacy and, “at moments of crisis,” not to ask for release from their vows. “It is a matter here of keeping one’s word to Christ,” he wrote. “Keeping one’s word is, at one and the same time, a duty and proof of the priest’s inner maturity; it is the expression of his personal dignity.”

In the past few years, especially during the reign of Paul VI, celibacy had been the main cause for the defection of priests. It has risen worldwide from 1.000 in 1965 to an annual rate of about 4,000—one per cent of the world’s 400.000 Roman Catholic priests. But since John Paul’s election he has approved almost none of the hundreds of requests from priests for a reduction to a lay status and dispensation to marry.

John Paul’s reaffirmation of the church’s traditional teachings on these and other delicate matters, such as divorce and the ban against admitting women into the priesthood, signals a conservative reign and, given the Pope’s robust health and age, it probably will be a long one. It appears the years of ferment and theological uncertainty in the church are over and what lies ahead is a period of consolidation. Traditionally in such periods the church has prospered and grown.

However, the Pope’s theological conservatism and Polish Catholicism may be a hard pill for Western progressives to swallow. Like nearly all Polish Catholics the former archbishop of Krakow is a devout follower of Mary. In fact, the Pope’s Marian addresses, which for the most part have been long and intense, are a cause of some embarrassment, even in Italy. The question being raised about this Pope—and the answer is not yet forthcoming—is whether he can make the theological move from Krakow to Rome. While Mary may be the Queen of Poland, she is not as significant elsewhere.

The Pope seems intent on consolidation and a clear understanding by all of the church’s role in the world. He is encouraging the church’s shift toward political disengagement. At the international conference of Latin American bishops in Pueblo, Mexico, last January, he denounced “exploitation of man by man and by the state and economic systems”—a pointed slap at both Marxism and capitalism—and he urged priests and nuns to eschew social activism and instead concentrate on their purely spiritual mission. He indirectly rejected the so-called “theology of liberation” which over the past decade has led hundreds of Latin American priests and nuns to support actively radical struggles against dictatorial regimes.

The church’s position is not “social or political,” he said. “People claim to show Jesus as politically committed, as one who fought against Roman oppression and the authorities and also as one involved in the 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.”

His stand at Pueblo upset many progressive Catholics. One Latin American bishop said dictatorships would use the Pope’s words as an excuse to repress all social action by priests and nuns. Manuel Stephens Garcia, a noted Mexico City political columnist, wrote: “When you speak of revolution, the problem of hatred and violence immediately emerges. But Brother John Paul, do you believe that the rich and powerful, who now, as a hundred years ago, imagine Latin America as their own private property, are going to yield their privileged position, their businesses, by a pacific process of civil, moral and spiritual conviction?”

His critics feel, perhaps with some justification, that the Pope might be too conditioned by his experiences in Poland—where the church conceived its function as that of a spiritual fortress set apart from secular matters—to understand the complexities of politics and the church in Third World countries. Other observers believe the Pope’s position is likely to have a very positive impact on the church.

Monsignor Bartolomeo Sorge, editor of the influential Italian Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica, commented: “For years the church has been on the defensive, worrying about whom to side with in ideological conflicts. Now the Pope is putting an end to this uncertainty by emphasizing the message of the gospel and making it more credible in contemporary life.”

Yet John Paul, especially as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, has actively taken sides in ideological conflicts. He was active in the underground, distributed resistance literature, carried messages and was involved in the underground canal that hid escapees. He helped Jews find shelter and false identity papers. He was in a unit that obtained technical details and actual pieces of the V-l flying bomb and V-2 rocket then being tested in Poland, which were later sent to London.

He helped organize the Rhapsodic Theatre, an experimental group concentrating on nationalistic themes, and, by 1944, already studying for the priesthood, he was put on the Nazi “wanted” list. The church sent him into hiding for the remainder of the war. What came next was years of study in Poland, Rome and elsewhere. A central influence was a simple tailor, Jan Tyrowski, who was a disciple of the great master of mystical prayer, St. John of the Cross, and he guided Wojtyla into the gift of mystical prayer. By 1967, Wojtyla was a cardinal in Krakow and, along with another mentor, Stephen Cardinal Wyszynski, he became a skilled thorn in the side of local and national Communist commisars. The two cardinals, more than any others, restored the Polish church to the most flourishing community in the Roman church. It was to this church that he made his pilgrimage this year.

Millions greeted him. At the death yards of Auschwitz and Birkenau—he was the first Pope to visit the former Nazi camps—he proclaimed: “I speak on behalf of all those whose rights have been forgotten.” It was the theme of his trip. It may well be the theme of his papacy. Throughout the nine-day pilgrimage he demanded that his Polish hosts support fundamental rights and freedoms, and he alluded to the church as the true homeland of Catholics in Communist countries, referring provocatively to himself as “this Slav Pope.”

There seems to be no dampening of enthusiasm for this Pope. The honeymoon between the pontiff and his people is still going strong. But the same cannot be said for John Paul’s relationship with the Curia—the Vatican’s entrenched, all-powerful central administration and power base. The election of the “foreign” Pope is believed to have dealt a blow to the predominantly Italian Curia, and the Pope’s clear determination to do things his way has not helped soften the blow.

On several occasions the Pope has been known to rebuff Curia advice with a curt, “I am the Pope and I know what to do.” One thing that sets him apart from previous popes is his accomplished linguistic skills, which means he does not need interpreters for most of his private meetings. In the past, papal interpreters were also charged with writing a report of the Pope’s meetings for whatever Vatican commission was directly concerned. Now the Pope meets alone with many of his visitors, and the Curia is left in the dark about what transpired.

He is known to hate paperwork and prefers direct discussion of the business at hand—a departure from the way previous popes worked. He prefers to see personally the people who are preparing a text and openly discusses issues and problems at round-table brainstorming sessions which usually end in lunch or dinner.

His daily routine is hectic. He says mass in his private chapel at 7 a.m., but unlike Paul VI—who always said mass privately—John Paul usually has several people with him—the Polish nuns who cook, clean and take care of him; friends and visitors. He then usually has a breakfast of Polish sausages and eggs. He receives people in the mornings and afternoons. He takes brisk walks around the Vatican gardens and constantly surprises people he bumps into. Vatican guards usually keep watch over him, but one morning he eluded them and offered to shake hands with a gardener. The man, overcome, put his hands behind his back and said: “They’re dirty, Holy Father.” The Pope laughed, grabbed the gardener’s grubby hands and rubbed them on his white cassock. “I know they’re dirty,” he said, “but I don’t do my own washing.”

This Pope is completely different. He is an independent, authoritative, one-man show. Says Daniel Maguire, an ex-priest and ethics professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: “He seems to see the world as Poland writ large.”

And ultimately what that means is top-down obedience, not ecclesiastical democracy.