Giovanni Paolo II, il Grande
In my previous post, which consisted mainly of quotes from scriptures ancient and modern, I promised that in coming days I would have more to say about Pope John Paul; and in between General Conference sessions, as I read the latest news updates on the Internet, I pondered what I should add to my earlier remarks. My thoughts and reflections have centered primarily around a tremendously moving, and ultimately earth-shaking, event that took place early in his reign. No one by himself will ever be able to say all that needs to be said about this great and good man, who clearly ranks among the towering figures of 20th-century history; but herewith, I add my own thoughts to the mosaic of words and commentary about him that are appearing on the Internet and elsewhere.
The history of the papacy has always fascinated me, and I have followed John Paul's reign with great interest ever since his selection as Pope in October of 1978. At the time, much was made of the fact that he was Polish, and as such, the first non-Italian Pope in more than 400 years. Poland, of course, was at that time in the heart of the Soviet empire, which seemed to be a permanent and impregnable fixture on the world's geopolitical landscape.
Then, in June of 1979, the new Pope made a triumphal return to his homeland; and as I and others around the world followed the trip with fascinated attention, he traveled from one city to another in the officially atheistic country, greeted at each stop by hundreds of thousands of cheering Poles, who gloried in this new pontiff who was one of their own. The climax of the trip came during his visit to Czestochowa, where the new Pope celebrated Mass in front of a crowd estimated at one million. At this point, as I watched the news one evening, the thought occurred to me that perhaps this was the definitive answer to Joseph Stalin's contemptuous question, voiced during the Second World War, as to how many divisions the Pope had. Little did I nor anyone else realize, however, that a sledgehammer blow had just been struck against the very foundations of the Iron Curtain. A year later, inspired in large part by the impetus provided by the Pope's visit, a group of shipyard workers at Gdansk founded the Solidarity movement; and within 2-1/2 years of John Paul's elevation to the papal throne, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain, and Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. No one could realize it at the time, but with the arrival of these three on the stage of history, the doom of Communism had just been sealed. (Charles Krauthammer has more to say about this in his column today. On one important point, however, my views diverge from his. Mr. Krauthammer affirms that he is not much of a believer, whereas I believe in a God who can and does intervene in the affairs of the world, often by raising up men and women at pivotal moments to perform some special mission. And such, in my view, was the case with the Pope, Prime Minister Thatcher, and President Reagan. That they all arrived at their respective destinies at nearly the same time is surely no coincidence. For his part, George Weigel expresses views a bit closer to my own.)
My other thought centers around a humorous, but nevertheless profound, observation made by an unknown individual, which I incorporated into my end-of-year reflections in my journal entry of December 31, 1979. Until his illnesses and old age gradually wore him down, John Paul was vigorously active -- in fact, he was an avid skier until about a dozen years ago. He was also personable, outgoing, and charismatic, in addition to which he was the most widely-traveled Pope in history, and wildly popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It was with all of this in mind that the unknown individual remarked that this was "a Pope who really knows how to pope."
I am sure that our collective grieving during this sad and solemn weekend has been counterbalanced by widespread rejoicing in the world of spirits, the paradise of God, where John Paul was welcomed on Saturday, doubtless by crowds that dwarfed those throngs at Czestochowa during that pivotal summer of 1979. And special greetings would be in order from a few specific individuals, including his predecessor Pope John XXIII, who was a jewel of a man if ever there was one -- and, of course, Ronald Reagan. Two members of the remarkable triumvirate have now gone to the paradise of God; and sometime in the near future, its third member, Lady Thatcher, will likewise arrive to join them there.