That this was a different kind of Pope was evident right from the start. He stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s, a full moon rising above, as his unknown, unexpected name was announced to the 100,000 people in the square. When he spoke, it was in Italian, tears streaming down his Slavic face, and the crowd that had been incredulous at this foreign Pope, this Pope from “far away,” as he put it, melted immediately. The very next day, as Vaticanologists were still trying to untangle the ramifications of the election of a Communist bloc Pope on the banks of the Tiber, he took an unannounced stroll through St. Peter’s Square on his way to see a sick Polish prelate. Catching tourists and photographers off guard, he strode confidently through the crowd, raising the arms of his white gown high above him as camera flashes backlit his gestures onto celluloid. There he was, already at the centre of attention, already expertly using it.
When he held his first public audience—with the press—reporters and photographers lunged over each other not only to get a quote but also to touch his powdery dry white hands, to receive a blessing. The style of his future audiences was set that day. Forsaking the traditional pontiff’s shoulder chair, he chose instead to walk slowly down the aisle of the Sala Delle Benedizioni stopping to chat, exchange an anecdote, pulling out words in one of the many languages he speaks, connecting with his blue eyes.
It was hardly surprising that in no time journalists dubbed him “Papa Superstar.” Stories circulated about his tennis games behind the Vatican walls. The big question was whether the Pope should be allowed to continue skiing. (He did not.) He happily dropped the papal “we” and instituted the Popemobile—the wide-open jeep in which he was shot—so that people could get a better view of him. His Wednesday public audience often turned into hilarious conversations with his admirers and he seemed never to lose an opportunity to pick up a child, lift it loftily into the air before kissing it on the forehead.
From the very beginning, with his church in confusion around him, he set himself up as a target—a target around which there might be a spiritual consolidation. With an apparent voraciousness for contact, he set himself a travelling schedule worthy of a “virile Pope,” setting off in his crucifix-emblazoned Alitalia jumbo jet. First Pope to visit Mexico, where his yellow and white colors lined his routes. First Pope in Ireland, where two million greeted his arrival. First to visit a Communist country—Poland—where the numbers defied reckoning. First to visit concentration camps, first to Japan’s atombombed cities. In the U.S. he made 60 speeches in six cities and packed Yankee Stadium with 80,000 people.
He wanted to galvanize the world and he did it. In Zaire, seven women and two children were crushed to death in the stampede to see him. In Brazil, three women died in the crowd and the pontiff had to take refuge in a bus. And of course there were the death threats in Ireland, Turkey, Philadelphia, the grenade in Karachi. Of his personal safety he said only: “I am travelling in the hand of God.”
What was perhaps lost initially in the papal razzle-dazzle, but is more than clear now as aie church is forced to take stock, is that this is also a very complex Pope, not easily pigeonholed. Behind the personal touch is an iron fist of doctrinal purity. He spoke bravely and movingly of the poor in Tondo, a slum outside Manila, but at the same time, while publicly remembering his own youthful longings, he forbade abortions and artificial birth control methods. He spoke passionately for the freedom of the church in Communist countries, but admonished the “red priests” of Latin America to forgo political involvement for spiritual development of the masses. His papacy so far has trod to a very individualistic line, halfway between tradition and compassion.
Whatever doubts Roman Catholics on both the traditional and progressive wings have had about this strict Marian with the rock star appeal, there is no doubt that he has managed to heal some of the rifts that were threatening the church when he stepped into the shoes of the fisherman. Perhaps it took nearly losing him to drive home the fact that this Pope has already vastly changed \ÿhat is expected of the papacy.
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