frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

anecdotes & stories

Neal Ascherson: He is a journalist who was with the Pope on two of his trips to Poland (1979 and 1983) and has reported on Poland for over 40 years.  He wrote two books on the country, including the most recent, The Struggles for Poland. He currently writes for Britain's The Observer.

read the full interview I was standing next to him [during one of his trips to Poland] and he was moving along the fence--people, lots of mothers, children, pushing over the fence. And there was one little girl about six. She was quite a weight, and a young mother sort of holding her up and the Pope stopped and--he looked her straight in the eye--and he said, "Where is Poland?" The little girl was completely baffled by the question. She sort of looked at him, giggled slightly, and then he put out his finger and he touched her. And he said "Poland is here."

I mean if you think about it, what was being said then? Not a lot..I'm moved whenever I remember that. But in a way, you know, it bears on this question of human rights, and individuality as well. I mean it's not just a patriotic sort of statement... It's saying that while human beings survive, speaking a language or being us, you know, the nation survives. It's real. But it was also saying what matters about the world, and about human arrangements is what you carry inside yourself and at the individual level. It was a way of putting together the idea of...the nation as an imagined community, and the nation as a reality of hard-working, practical, reasonably kindly individuals who want to get on with their lives in peace.

James Carroll: He is a writer, a former Paulist priest, and the author of nine novels and the memoir, An American Requiem.

read the full interview The most telling experience I've ever heard about him on the question of Christians and Jews was a story told to me by a friend who had been at the Second Vatican Council in 1963, '64, '65.

Picture St. Peter's Basilica full of several thousands of bishops, every bishop in the world is there. And the debate is over Nostra Aetate, the great Vatican document on relationships of the Catholic Church to other religions, with a special paragraph about the relationship of the Church to the Jews. It was a very heated debate. The end result of that document was to affirm two very important things, which in a sense are offensive, but they needed to be affirmed. One, the Jewish people living in the time of Jesus and living afterwards, can never be held guilty for the death of Jesus. An important affirmation. Why? Because for 1500,1800 years, that was the basis of Christian attacks. Secondly, that document renounced the idea that Christianity had replaced Judaism as a favorite religion of God's. Judaism had its own ongoing integrity. Very important.

Now, in the debate, there were many bishops who did not want those points in there, and it was going back and forth. And my friend said to me, all of a sudden down at the far end of the table a man began to speak--a voice that he had not heard in any debate. In many debates on many other questions, he had never heard this voice. He knew that it was a different voice because of the heavy accent. And the man spoke of the Church's responsibility to change its relationship to Jews. And my friend said to me, "I lifted up my head. I thought, "Who is this prophet?" And I looked down and it was this young bishop from Poland. And no one even knew his name. And it was the first intervention he made at the Council. And it was very important.

That's, I think, the beginning of the large public impact that the Pope has had on this question. In Krakow he had already begun to change it, but that was the beginning of his impact on the Church. And the Nostra Aetate document stands as a monument, a turning point, in its history. Partly, I'd say, because of him. And so what follows then from his becoming Pope isn't surprising.

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete: He is a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York and a friend of John Paul II.  He was president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico and served as associate professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family.

read the full interview When I first met the Holy Father, he was Cardinal Wojytla. I met him one morning at breakfast in Washington at the home of the then Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. There were no props. He was not dressed in white with the whole Vatican establishment behind him or anything. He was dressed in a way that any ordinary priest would, with an open collar like this. And he was having breakfast. Rather absorbed in his corn flakes.

I sat down, and I didn't know what to talk about and he asked me what I was doing, what I was studying because I was getting my doctorate in theology at the time. I said, "I am reading of the interpretation of the hermeneutics, that is, what really lies behind things." That became part of a lecture to me on his part, half of which I didn't understand because he made reference to things I had never read, which then were made clear, because I acknowledged that I had no idea what he was talking about.

In any case, from that moment, he said the great question today is precisely that one-- 'Everything is interpretation.' And if we discover something new, we cannot see it, because we can only see things in terms of what was there before. We reject the possibility of being surprised, of finding something really new, and he says that is an imprisonment. The human being is totally imprisoned in a world of its own making, and he says that human beings are convinced that this is somehow liberating--to conclude somehow that we are the manufacturers of reality is a liberating discovery. It's a terribly imprisoning one, and how to open up the human capacity to taste the really new, the transcendence and therefore to really have hope in the unseen - that is the question of the times.

This is what he said to me about a year and a half before he popped out of the balcony dressed in white. When I first heard of his election, I knew what we were in for--"Oh my god, now he has the world stage and not just the breakfast table!" He has certainly not disappointed me. It has been awesome, an awesome spectacle. He will not give up--relentless, confronting us with this question.

Bill Blakemore: He was Rome bureau chief for ABC News and its Vatican correspondent from 1978-1983. He traveled with John Paul II on twenty-one international visits and covered the pontiff's role in the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union.

read the full interview On the Pope's second trip to Poland, martial law had taken over. The Communists had found an excuse to go in and take over with military force. A lot of people in America thought that he's betraying his own cause. He's going to acknowledge this military regime...

So he goes back on the second trip. That gaunt, powerful figure of Cardinal Wyszinski is gone and no longer beside him; the Pope's on his own now. The world is wondering, what is he going to do? Is he going to acknowledge this regime? And so we're all looking very closely when Jarulzelski and the Pope come out for their first public formal meeting. They're both standing not too far from each other in a room behind their separate microphones. And the camera pans down and we realize that Jarulzelski's standing there--I believe he had his dark shades on--and his knees are trembling.

And we all searched for explanations--why are his knees trembling standing in front of the Pope? We looked for explanations, such as well, there's a medical condition, or he's on some kind of medication. Ultimately, he explained, no, it really was what it looked like: "I was trembling in awe at the responsibility and importance of this man in front of me." Jarulzelski himself ultimately said those were the classic clichéd trembling knees in front of something I knew was extremely powerful.

The Pope had this kind of authenticity of nationhood--if you will--of importance. So that even Jarulzelski himself was put on notice that he was in front of the master. It was a remarkable image...that we could barely believe ourselves, of the centered, calm power of this man who had come back in, gotten back on the horse. He'd been assassinated--virtually successfully--but had recovered, and now he'd come back in to continue the fight.

Roberto Suro: He is a journalist for The Washington Post and reported full time on John Paul II from 1984-1989 for The New York Times and Time

read the full interview I remember a revealing day in Krakow, when he went home during his third trip to Poland in 1987. It had become a ritual. There were two things that he always did when he went to Krakow. One was to say a Mass in the Blonia Meadow, which is a big, green space just beyond the walls of old Krakow where huge crowds had always gathered for him. Now these were his people, it was his flock he was finally back among, the people he had been a priest to his whole career before becoming Pope. And on this occasion, he made a pun about a Polish poem that's very well known, which he punned off the main character, talking about, "I was lost, and then I was found, and now I've come home."

It was an unusually revealing moment for him to talk about having been lost, and to talk about his papacy, almost 10 years into it, as having been this voyage away from home.

And that night, as was traditional, the students from the university came by the Archbishop's residence, which had been his house for much of his adult life, and serenaded him. And as had been the case in the previous two trips, he came to the window of his bedroom to acknowledge them. He stood there, kind of waving and clapping, nodding his head to the music sort of felicitously. When they stopped, waiting for him to say something. And as I remember, there was this pause, and he said to them, "I knew what to say to you in 1979--which was his first trip immediately after he had been elected--but I don't know what to say to you now."

It was an extraordinary moment that could have only have happened with him among family, essentially. It revealed a sense of his own journey, and the fact that, at that point, he was still searching for his own way forward. Perhaps coming home, you could imagine him thinking, "You know, I could have gone to Rome for that conclave, and somebody else could have been picked. And I could have just come back here, and how life might have been different." I mean, that thought must have occurred to him a thousand times in the last 20 years.

James Carroll: He is a writer, a former Paulist priest, and the author of nine novels and the memoir, An American Requiem.

read the full interview I love the Church for the way in which it embraces contradictions. John Paul II embodies that about the Catholic Church. Most of the rest of us just stand on one place or the other in the community. He seems to be capable of standing at all places. Padre Pio, yes, at one end. But there he is, last year in Bologna, on the platform with Bob Dylan, quite at home. Do you remember what he said? Bob Dylan sang a couple of songs, and then the Pope went to the microphone and he said--it was a big gathering of Italian youth--and he said, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" And then he said, "There is one road, and it is the road of Jesus Christ." Which is the perfect moment of John Paul II-- his capacity to be at home on the platform with Bob Dylan, and his impulse to use it as an opportunity to proclaim a very univocal, and I would say, a little too unnuanced message in this day and age.

I believe that Jesus is my road. But, I don't believe there is only one road. And if you push him, he wouldn't believe that either, I don't believe. But that's the Pope: Padre Pio, Bob Dylan. Both things. Contemptuous of modern consumerist celebrity culture, the greatest celebrity of our time. Both things. It's fantastic, really.

Eamon Duffy: He is a Vatican historian and professor at Cambridge University and the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes.

read the full interview The job is clearly very isolating, very dehumanizing in all sorts of ways. And a story told me by a friend of mine I think highlights that for me. He's a theologian who was invited to act as an advisorat one of the synods at the early 1980's. And the Pope at that time had a habit of inviting some to supper so he could get to meet people, talk to them. So a dozen of these young theologians were taken to the papal apartments for dinner and my friend was lucky enough to sit next to the Pope. And it was for him an extraordinarily tense and fraught occasion. So rather desperately trying to find something striking to say to the Pope he said, "Holy Father, I love poetry, and I've read all your verse. Have you written much poetry since you became Pope?" And the Pope said, "I've written no poetry since I became Pope."

So my friend, rather running ahead of himself said, "Well, why is that Holy Father?" And the Pope immediately froze, changed the subject, turned away to the person on his other side. But about twenty minutes into the meal he turned round to my friend, leaned over to him and said, "No context." And at the end of evening, as they were all taking their leave, my friend said, "Holy Father, when I pray for you now, I'll pray for a poet without context." And the Pope was extremely frozen about this. He clearly felt he'd said more than he should have said, shown a part of himself that he didn't really want to share with a stranger. And so he didn't respond to that.

But I do think it's a very revealing story. The whole submerging of his own humanity in the office which, given the conception of the papacy he's inherited, I think is required by the job... He's succumbed to this less than other popes--you know, the famous business about the swimming pool, insisting on having one built for him, insisting on having holidays, on going skiing. But all the same, at the heart of it, where the poetry is written, no context.

Bill Blakemore: He was Rome bureau chief for ABC News and its Vatican correspondent from 1978-1983. He traveled with John Paul II on twenty-one international visits and covered the pontiff's role in the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union.

read the full interview The bishop [Karol Wojtyla] wanted a new church. The Communists said, "Well, you can't have one." The bishop wanted a new church right in town. And the Communists said, "Well, you can't have one. This is for the workers, they have other concerns."

Bishop Wojtyla kept pushing, kept working with them. He developed a kind of pragmatism with the Communists during that entire campaign to get Nowa Huta built. He...didn't get stubborn at any point. Because he knew what he wanted was transformation even within the authorities. At one point, the authorities said, "You can't have it here, you have to have it out here on the edge of town." So he said, "Fine, we'll do that. "

He kept trying to call their bluff to find ways to work with them to keep the dialogue going. He developed obvious talent, therefore, subtle adaptation to his adversary, if you will. It was a kind of demonstration that he didn't want to go the guerrilla route, to make things polarized, to bring on violence of any kind, to bring on an impasse. He wanted to keep working, as he would see it, in a Christian way with his enemy.

He tries, I think, throughout his life and throughout his administration in Poland, to apply that rule: love your enemy. He keeps trying very subtle ways of doing that. And I think that in the way that he finally got Nowa Huta built, by constantly keeping at it, by getting local support from people, by having marches through the street, by raising a penny here, a penny there from everybody, he just outlasted the Communists finally. And this kind of demonstration of will, of patience, and of a desire to be accommodating wherever he can, is what he ultimately developed and I think we saw him using after he became Pope in helping Solidarity ultimately reach a successful end.

Roberto Suro: He is a journalist for The Washington Post and reported full time on John Paul II from 1984-1989 for The New York Times and Time

read the full interview The Pope is a great traveler by virtue of the miles he's racked up. He's not a great traveler in the sense that he engaged the places that he visited--that he went there looking for interaction, looking for things to happen. His trips often were scripted to the minute, and he was going according to the script.

The most dramatic example of that I can recall was during a trip to Mozambique, at a time when this truly vicious civil war had just been settled. There wasn't real peace in the country, yet. It was still divided. It was one of those situations where you had huge expanses of brush that were full of minefields, small guerrilla bands. There were parts of the country that were isolated.

Towards the end of a two or three day visit, he flew to this very isolated city that had basically been cut off from the rest of the country for quite a long time, an area that had seen a great deal of fighting for many years. In fact, he never left the airport for security reasons....

I talked to some of the priests who had accompanied some of the people who had trekked in from the bush and had not had any contact with the outside world, in the midst of civil war for years at that point. And in talking to these people while he was getting ready, there was some real anticipation. "What was he going to say?"

It was towards the end of the day, dusk in the bush ... a lot of people were basically in rags, exhausted faces looking up at the Pope. And he got up there and gave a brief benediction ceremony, where it wasn't a full Mass. He just said some prayers, threw some hymns, and then he had a speech. He read the speech in sort of Polish-accented Portuguese, and it was a meditation on a fairly obscure theological subject--transubstantiation, if I recall correctly. I figured, "All right, he'll do that, and then he'll put the speech down and say something to these people." Well, he didn't. He just finished the speech and walked off the stage.

And there was this sort of, "Okay..." And I asked some of the people in his entourage, "Why did he give that speech to this crowd?" And they said, "Well, this had been an issue that one of the Vatican congregations had just finished resolving, had written a paper on, and they needed the Pope to issue this theological finding and get it on the record, basically." They were looking for a place to do it, and this is where they stuck it on the trip. It was just for the larger 2,000-year-old theological record of Catholic Church.

This fairly small question had been decided in this little town of Mozambique, and he didn't give them anything. He did not--there was no impetus to say, you know, "Bless you , things will get better, God's with you, I love you." I mean, even the standard stuff that he offers usually. He was tired, you know? The man had been on the road for 12 days. He'd hit 20 cities. He had already racked up 100,000 miles or whatever, and was tired. So he read his speech, got back on his plane, and went home.

Eamon Duffy: He is a Vatican historian and professor at Cambridge University and the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes.

read the full interview ...The Archbishop of Liverpool, a rather gray, austere man who'd been a career cleric...told me at dinner that he was absolutely entranced by the election of Wojtyla. And I said, "Why does he impress you so much?" And he said they had sat together on the proprietary commission for the bishops in the early 1970. And a number of meetings had been in Rome in the winter and the weather was terrible. And...it was rather austere, a meeting of people who didn't really know each other very well from different countries.

And the key figure was Wojtyla. And he would tramp into the meetings, always just before they started, and on one occasion, he marched in--he walked all the way from wherever it was in Rome he was staying--and his cassock and his feet and his socks were sopping wet, skirted up his cassock, took his shoes and socks off, squeezed the water from the socks and hung them on the radiator and he said, "Gentlemen, should we get down to business?" And they were just so entranced by a bishop with balls, you know--a man who was rugged and the energy and the lack of self importance. And so people suddenly felt here was somebody who wasn't tired, somebody who had vigor who was absolutely sure of himself. He could take his socks off in public.

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