frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

synopsis

pope (sitting)

bibliography FRONTLINE's "Pope John Paul II-The Millennial Pope," a bold, innovative new biography on this controversial world leader, is a journey through the 20th century to the sources of John Paul II's character and beliefs, and the passionate reaction to him. It is a journey that says as much about us as it does about him.

Drawing on interviews with those who have studied and analyzed John Paul II or, whose lives have intersected with his, it offers insights into the major themes in his life: the shaping influence of Polish culture and history, his relationship with Jews, his part in the fall of Communism, his opposition to liberation theology, his repudiation of the ordination of women, his battle to convince the world, especially the West, that it must save itself from sinking into a "culture of death." And, finally, John Paul II's fierce insistence on faith.

The program weaves a biographical narrative through several thematic chapters. The first chapter, "Landscape," draws a portrait of the powerful emotional and spiritual landscape of Poland that formed Karol Wojtyla--from his love of the Polish countryside, poetry and theater, to his devotion to his family, his god and the Virgin Mary; from his stoic reaction to tragedy--both his own and his nation's--to the great solace he found in solitude.

The chapter "Jews" looks at Karol Wojtyla's remarkable relationship with Jews. He was a nineteen-year-old university student when the Nazis invaded Poland and he saw his friends and teachers killed as Poland became the epicenter of the Holocaust. Exploring the anti-Semitic rhetoric that surrounded young Karol--and was even preached from the pulpit of Poland's Catholic Church--this report examines his boyhood friendships with Jews, his behavior during the war under Nazi occupation, his actions to help Jews after the war, and finally, his dramatic steps as Pope to heal the ancient enmity between Christians and Jews. The program also shows how John Paul II's journey of atonement with the Jews was not without missteps, and looks at events involving Kurt Waldheim and the canonization of the Jewish convert to Catholicism, Edith Stein, who was murdered at Auschwitz.

The "Solidarity" segment of this film shows how Karol Wojtyla's life was entwined with another of the 20th century's darkest events--the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. This chapter lays out the evolution of the intensely apolitical Karol Wojtyla into the Pope who would play a central part in the non-violent revolution that ended Communism. It examines Wojtyla's rise within the Church hierarchy, the development of his political gifts, and how his first visit back to his homeland as Pope inspired the Polish nation. Although it would take ten years, John Paul II used the enormous moral and financial authority of the Vatican to challenge the Communist system; the revolution that began in Poland with the anti-Communist Solidarity movement led to Communism's end in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

But while the Pope helped bring about the end of dictatorship in Eastern Europe, he undermined efforts to battle another kind of dictatorship in Latin America. In the "Liberation Theology" chapter, FRONTLINE explores why John Paul II set in motion a deliberate strategy to crush liberation theology, closing many institutions which had fostered it-seminaries, schools, some churches. "This Pope was needed on the side of the revolution there so it could be non-violent," says James Carroll, a former priest. "And it's a tragedy that this Pope didn't recognize it as such. And I can only understand his failure to do so because he applied it too narrowly to the lens of his own fight against Communism."

The "Women" segment of this program explores the connections and contradictions between John Paul II's devotion to the ultimate embodiment of womanhood--the Virgin Mary--and his conflict with women over the issues of birth control and the ordination of women as priests. Chronicling his veneration of Mary--a devotion which goes back as far as his mother's death when he was eight years old--FRONTLINE probes why his deeply-held vision of Mary's purity is central to his views on women. "In each woman he really does see some small part of the Virgin Mary...traduced if a woman does things she shouldn't do," says historian Tony Judt. "This is not an invented or ideological or political or institutional anger. This is some...deeply felt belief."

"The Culture of Death" chapter explores Pope John Paul II's dark vision of our modern age and his relentless campaign to convince the world to save itself from sinking into a "culture of death." Examining his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life in which he challenges modern man's quest to maximize individual freedoms, this chapter shows how the issues of abortion, contraception and capital punishment are connected in the Pope's vision of a "culture of death."

The final thematic segment of this report is "Faith" and it is journey to the heart of what ultimately defines this pope--his religious faith. Through stories and interviews, it examines John Paul II's intense spiritual life and presents the surprising revelations of spiritual yearning from believers and non-believers, including the writers Germaine Greer and Robert Stone.

FRONTLINE's "John Paul II-The Millennial Pope" ends with a brief coda which questions just what will be this Pope's legacy for the Catholic Church and the world at large. Among the journalists and Catholics interviewed in this section is Washington Post reporter Roberto Suro, who concludes--"At the end of the day, when you look at this extraordinary life and you see all that he has accomplished, you're left with one very disturbing question. On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure...a man obsessed with the evils of the twentieth century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way...it's so dark and so despairing that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure. On the other hand, you have to ask: Is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours."

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