Sunday, April 03, 2005

My Pope 

The Pope had left us for the last of his many journeys.

I have little doubt that his pontificate will be seen as one of the most momentous in the 2000-year history of the Papacy and the Catholic Church (indeed, because of the John Paul's reach and impact, Christianity in general), and he himself will be remembered as one of the few most influential pontiffs, perhaps next to Gregory the Great.

He was many things to many people, and his papacy touched on just about every political, economic, social and moral aspect of the past thirty years. Wiser people than I will make an assessment of John Paul as the leader of his billion-strong flock, as a theologian, and moral beacon. My John Paul, not surprisingly, is the political Pope, the Polish Pope, the one who helped to bring down the Soviet Empire. There is no doubt in my mind about the role he played in this grand spectacle of history. Forget all the rather silly theories about cooperation with the CIA, or some "holy alliance" with President Reagan; he made a difference not on the account of some covert shenanigans but because of who he was, what he said and what he did out in the open, in front of the billions.

If you distill it all into one word, it is this: hope. He gave us hope. By us, I mean initially the Poles, the troublemakers who in 1980 started rocking the communist boat, but his appeal of course transceded any national lines; there was nothing exclusive about him because he embodied and blessed the aspirations of the countless many from Warsaw to Sao Paolo to Cape Town (or indeed New York or Omaha: the latest poll of just over a 1,000 Americans, less than a quarter of them Catholic, had found that 78 per cent had favorable opinion of the John Paul II - although as Powerline shows, not at the "New York Times").

I was six when he was elected the Pope, but I can still remember first the disbelief and then the euphoria that after four and a half centuries of Italian pontiffs the cardinals have chosen an outsider, and not just any outsider but one of ours. His first trip to Poland as the Pope, in 1979, had energized our society, demoralized and worn out after more than three decades of shadow life in workers' paradise. When Solidarity erupted onto the world scene a year later (and in some ways, as a result of his visit), he let us know that he was with us. When he came back in 1983, during the dark winter of our history, with the opposition suppressed and the country suffocated by the Martial Law and the dreary rule of the colonels, he made us realize that there was future. In that, he was similar to Ronald Reagan with his fervent belief about communism being consigned to the ash heap of history; he made us believe that no matter what temporary setbacks, the right and the history were on our side, that the seemingly monolithic edifice of the Soviet Empire would crumble one day - perhaps sooner than we thought - and that we would be free at last.

When Stalin sneered "The Pope? How many divisions does he have?", he did not understand that we were the Pope's divisions, and that - contra Orwell's dystopic vision - there is no such thing as a boot stomping on human face forever.

Everyone will have their own Pope; this is mine. I did not agree with some of his political and economic views, particularly later on in his pontificate, but then I did not have to. For me, he would remain great on the account of those amazing eleven years from when he ascended to the throne of St Peter to when Poland had her democratic election in 1989 and the empire well and truly started to come apart. It doesn't really matter what came before or what came after that.

I did not really know the Pope and I never met him. The closest I've ever been to him was one afternoon in Krakow in 1983, during his second trip (or pilgrimage as we liked to call it) to his homeland. His schedule was pretty full with official engagement, but a rumor swept through the city that he would be making an unscheduled visit to Krakow's main cemetery to pray at his parents' graveside. As the most direct route from the Bishop's Palace, where the Pope was staying, to the cemetery passed by some five minutes' walk away from my place, the 11 year old me put on a coat and made my way to outside the tourist hostel, which only very recently played host to motorized special police units during the Martial Law. There were only a handful of people lining up along the road, a sign that the rumor hasn't quite made great rounds. I've been waiting maybe ten minutes, not knowing what to expect, and indeed whether to expect anything at all, when I saw the famous white "Popemobile" driving down the road towards me with just a minimal official escort. I was standing by myself, at the traffic lights, and I waved as his car approached. He was there, dressed up all in white, standing on his elevated platform, and as he passed me by he waved back.

Hardly a stuff of which great autobiographies are made. My uncle knew him much better. Some thirty years ago, he and his friends from university set up the "Academic Choir Organum". The future Pope, who was then the Archbishop of Krakow, loved being with young people and maintained special interest in cultivating the future intelligencia. It didn't take much persuading to get him to become the choir's patron. Three decades later, and Organum is still going strong and my uncle is now its chairman. It's still an amateur outfit (in a sense that all its members have day jobs, some connected with music, some not - the uncle is an architect - and certainly not in a sense of their high professionalism) and some of its members are now in their early fifties, but it never ditched the "academic" tag. Over the years, as they toured around Europe they would drop by Vatican to see their former patron, and whenever John Paul would visit Poland they would see him, too, and sing for him, like in those good old days in the 1970s.

I'm sure that next time they perform, wherever that will be, he'll be there with them, listing in.

Karol Wojtyla, requiescat in pacem. Wieczny odpoczynek racz mu dac Panie.


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