frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

Interview with 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.

How would you describe the Pope's role in the fall of communism? Would it have happened without him?

neal aschersonThe Pope's role in the fall of Communism was really I think, in a sense, confined to Poland. I mean a lot of people say, "He spread a spirit of revolt, defiance, at a critical moment throughout Eastern Europe." Well, I don't think he ever made a great dent or hole, certainly in countries whose basic religion was Orthodox, for example.

But in Poland he helped to bring about such profound, irreversible changes that Poland then became a country which was clearly ceasing to be a Communist country. Sooner or later, it was going to fall out of the Soviet orbit --with or without, of course, a cataclysmic explosion. One didn't know then when this all started. And that was it. If you were doing this in terms of intellectual argument, you could say that the Pope's approach to human beings undermined the impact and the deadening effects of Communist regimes on mass populations, particularly working class populations, in huge, grimy, new cities which had sprung up in the previous fifty years in Eastern Europe. And in a way, that's true.

But what really mattered was what happened in Poland. That became the lancehead, which in 1980 went straight into the bowels of the whole Communist Soviet empire, if you like, in Eastern Europe, and gave it a wound from which it simply didn't recover. Went home and died. So it's there, it's in Poland that it matters.

Could you describe the Pope's trip to Poland in 1979? What would it have looked like and felt like and why did it make a difference?

It was an absolutely transforming experience. I remember one boy I knew said to me after hearing the Pope in Warsaw--his first huge speech in what was then called Victory Square--there were between a hundred thousand to a quarter of a million. This was the first great speech of this pilgrimage. And after hearing that, this boy said to me, "I feel that I never heard anybody speak before." And what he meant by that was very interesting and important. The Pope was using the Polish language, publicly, to say things that were unsayable. But he was also using a vocabulary which normally was now confined to books, or possibly to private conversations with older intellectuals--but you never heard it in the public dimension at all. And also, the things that he was saying, he was talking directly on the basis of what everybody who listened knew to be true, and he was communicating with them on that basis. He was saying, "I know this is true, you know this is true. Let us agree. We don't have to make a song and dance about it. We both know that this is an occupied country, in effect." He didn't quite say it in those words, but in words perfectly clearly explained what he meant.

...the Pope's attitude to reproduction, contraception, abortion, comes out of his own experience.  During the Nazi occupation he saw  the Jews being destroyed.The Poles were next...so the lesson he drew was that protecting birth and reproduction was a matter of survival. Nobody had said such a thing in public for fifty years. It was impossible. And nobody, indeed, had really communicated in this way, directly, voicing what people thought, to them. And the effect of that was absolutely seismic, particularly in young people. And people wept, people walked up and down the streets thinking about it, you know, afterwards. Because of the way that he talked.

There's a lot more to say about why it was important. Another, which is a much more sort of political, operational reason that it mattered, was that the Communist regime, pulled back and said, "You can organize this" to the Catholic laity and the Catholic Church. So the Church and the laity were responsible for things like lining the streets, stopping the traffic, decorating buildings, making sure that the pope-mobile was on time, dealing with refreshments and providing toilets. For example, at some time, the final crunch was actually two million people, which I will never see again together in one place, in Krakow, when he left. And all that was put into the hands of the Church, and the Catholic laity, and all the sort of young Catholic associations.

Now, that doesn't sound interesting. But it was an absolute revolution, because for the first time, since Communism took power, ordinary Poles who had an authentic place in their informal society were being allowed to take charge of a whole aspect of their life. And within the space that was created, something real suddenly existed, which they called a 'real Poland.' Now this concept, this idea, about what is real, what is not, is very important in a country like Poland, because you see, for so long, for over 100 years-125 years when they were partitioned, imitation Polands were offered to them, dummy Polands were set up and waved about. And in a sense, where was the real one?

Well, the real one only existed in the space that you could create when, for example, you made a conspiracy. And there, the people in the conspiracy talked to each other absolutely openly, truthfully. They said what they thought. And in that space that they created with other conspirators in other Polish cities, you know, distributing muskets and bombs and so on for the next insurrection. That was Poland. It existed. It was self-governing, self-managing, and real, as opposed to dummy. And that was the importance of 1979. They allowed a huge space to open, in which the Poles said, "But in here we are ourselves. There's no pretense about this. We really are running our own lives. Even if it is only in one sector, for one occasion, for a few weeks. But we are doing it."

And, of course, the authority of the regime never recovered from that. And it gave people a huge injection of self-confidence at exactly the right moment. I mean, in a sense these things are coincidental. But that visit happened in 1979, it happened at a point where opposition groups were really beginning to mobilize in Poland. They were very small, pretty conspiratorial, pursued by the police, in and out of jail, but they were certainly growing in strength. The working class in the big cities was growing very discontented. There was trouble. There were... intent shortages were building up. It was very difficult time in a lot of ways. And at that moment, the visit happened, and the Poles came out with their idea about themselves transformed. They felt, "We can do it. We can do it. We can do something for ourselves. So we can make a free trade union, for example," they said. "We can make, not a dummy trade union which is supposed to represent the workers but does nothing of the kind because it's run by the Communist Party, but we can make a real one." And they did, and they made it, and it was called the Free Trade Union of the Coast. And it made a strike, and then it made, it developed into another union, which of course was Solidarity. So Solidarity in that sense comes straight out of the idea of the free, authentic self-governing, self-managing space which is called Poland.

One of the things you're saying by implication is that there are all sorts of ways that people are debilitated living in totalitarianism. And one of them is being infantilized, having things done for you or not having freedom to do them even if you wanted to.

Well, you see, Communism in Eastern Europe particularly, was really in two phases. First of all, there was the preliminary phase, the so-called People's Democracy phase, which was semi-democratic, it was a strange interval. And then there was straight Stalinism, which was sheer totalitarian terror in which the entire population was mobilized, hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labor camps, dummy trials took place, everybody denounced everybody. The nightmare. The nightmare didn't, in fact, last very long. It lasted about maximum five, six years. And in some countries, less.

After that came the post-Stalinist period, and that's when most people lived their lives under Communism. And that was the period which was still running by 1979. And it wasn't so much an experience of being terrorized, it was an experience of being deprived and limited. I mean, at the fringes there was arbitrary terror. You said the wrong thing, your daughter could get pulled out of university. You said the wrong thing or you wrote the wrong thing, then you could lose your flat. If you wrote the wrong thing and published it, then you could end up in jail on some curious charge or other. You'd certainly have your passport withdrawn and so would your mother's brother's second cousin, and it would go on like that.

But broadly speaking, most people lived their lives in a kind of unwilling conformity. The thing was that they were offered, as time went by, various kinds of freedom, most of which were sort of dummy freedoms somehow, so that you could travel, yes, but actually where you could travel to was organized party resorts in Bulgaria on the Black Sea. You could paint after all, anywhere you liked. After 1960, if you wanted to be an abstract expressionist, like America, you could do that. If you wanted to be a surrealist, you could do that. The old social realism collapsed, and people said, "Oh, that ridiculous stuff." The party cultural officials said, "That was from the old days, now you can do what you like."

And they then started adopting all kinds of avant garde groups in culture, and even fostering them. And these people found to their intense embarrassment that their freedom was actually being used by the regime - so that they would get scholarships to go abroad. They would be touted round in state-sponsored exhibitions, to show how free the regime was, when of course, it wasn't. And you'd have kind of dummy controversies about Polish history, which were supposed to be deeply frank. Or dummy controversies and arguments about, I don't know, Hungarian culture in the nineteenth century, which left out bits, which were not mentioned, and everybody knew they weren't mentioned, and somehow this revealed to everybody that nothing had changed, and that freedom wasn't really freedom.

By the end, it was like this: people's public sphere, their public lives, was fairly controlled. But their private lives, eventually, were completely left alone. So that you could do what you like. There wasn't much to do. There wasn't much to buy, but on the whole, you could do it. And people daydreamed. They lived in a tradition of dreaming, fantasizing. East Germany was the most extreme, where people just sat back watching West German television. There was a great ideological argument: "Should they be allowed to watch West German television? It will fill their heads with capitalist propaganda." But Walter Ulbricht,who then was the East German dictator, extremely smartly said, "Oh, no it won't. You watch." And sure enough, it in fact anaesthetized people. They just sat at home, watching the commercials on West German television for scads of beautiful consumer goods which they would never buy, which they'd never even see in their shops, couldn't afford. And somehow, they fell quiet. People lived in a sort of daydream.

I'd like to talk about the Polishness of this Pope as a key to sort of understanding him. What are the elements of the Polish history that you think play themselves out in his emphasis, perhaps, on suffering and martyrdom. And, his obsession with history and his sense of partition and loss throughout?

For a Pole of his generation, it was quite difficult to talk about Polish history as we would talk about American history or British history. Because we think of American history and British history as then. But Polish history is now. And what I mean by that is it has seemed, for generation after generation, that Polish history has a sort of cyclical form. It moves in cycles, which horribly repeat themselves. It's like a production. It's like a theater company which really has only one play, with about four acts. But as it goes on, so, gradually new actors come. But the new actors are playing the same old parts. They play the stainless hero who dies on the scaffold for his country. They play the man who betrays everything. Then there's the strange anti-hero who joins the enemy camp in order to understand it from the inside, knowing that nobody will ever understand why he did this. There are people who sacrifice their own characters, and say, "Well, somebody has to be their governor-general. Somebody has to be their representative, their viceroy, in this occupied country. And it's better that it should be I, a Pole."

So these characters, they come round and round. So does the cycle: insurrection, repression, intervals of freedom, occupation by foreign powers, and deep moral confusion. Events go in a cycle form. They seem to repeat themselves, so that you seem to have a moment of freedom, and then the freedom begins to turn sour, and then gradually foreign powers begin to encroach on it, and then there's invasion, occupation, tyranny, extirpation of everything that is the Polish identity, and persecution. And then there is heroic insurrection - probably unsuccessful - and then another one, and another one, and probably all of them are unsuccessful.

And then comes another period, which is always known as positivism. People say, "We cannot go on sacrificing our young people in hopeless, romantic insurrections, generation after generation. Let's just make ourselves rich. That's the way to be free. Because if this country is really prosperous, we will just grow out of these appalling primitive empires which have tried to embed us in them, and let's be positivist, let's be practical. No more dreams." And then that goes on, and then eventually it's replaced by another beginning of the cycle, the romantic cycle of rebellion.

So, in that sense--and it sounds a sentimental thing to say, but as a matter of fact it's a rather terrifying thing to say--that is that if you want to understand... In those days, if you wanted to understand, let's say the 1970s, what was really happening in Poland, you had to read nineteenth century drama. The nineteenth century, the great, golden age of Polish literature, the great verse dramas really of the early nineteenth century, after Poland was partitioned between the three empires. And there you will see people you know in those dramas, saying things you could read in the Party newspaper. Or alternatively, saying things that people whisper to you when they're in a place where they think no microphones could be listening. The same people, in the same plight, with the same situations. It goes round and round.

Connect some of these great Polish themes--suffering, the cycle, partition and loss, obsession that history is alive--with this Pope. How do you see those themes playing out in this Pope?

There were several traditions which the Pope might have picked up, but the one he chose to pick up was the one called Messianism. And Messianism has a very particular meaning in Poland. It is a doctrine in its most extreme form. It was invented by a total charlatan - one of the Rasputin-like lunatics, who was a Polish immigrant in Paris in the 1830s. And it was sold to him by Mickiewicz who was the great national poet. What it said is this: Poland is the incarnation. It's the collective incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is a nation which has to be crucified, in order to bring about the salvation of all nations. So, you will see that it is the will of God that Poland should be put to death on the cross, it should go down into the darkness. Then on the third day to rise again, to be resurrected, and to bring about the salvation of all nations through its sacrifice.

Now this stupefying, extraordinary notion became deeply popular in Poland. I mean, it's a sort of measure of despair, and abandonment, which reigned in Poland during those years, in the nineteenth century. But it had a deep, deep significance, and it was taken profoundly on board by the Poles. So much so, that it was still very much in people's awareness. I'm not saying that most Poles believe that Poland really was the reincarnated collective Christ, but it was an idea quite familiar to them. And when the Second World War began, and the German occupation, then they recognized this, they knew just what was happening. And they had a way to understand it, a religious, patriotic way to understand it, which helped them survive. Also, of course, as we know, many of them did not survive. But it was very important.

The Pope was brought up in the Second World War and with the idea that this huge sacrifice had a meaning--that Poland was in some sense a chosen nation; that the nation was sacred. Now, that's probably the most important thing about him, if we're talking about the Polish origin, because you see, it seems to me--though he's never really said this explicitly--but if you look at it, and if you understand the Messianist background, the idea is that God created man in three concentric circles. The individual: sacred. The family: sacred. The nation: sacred. Anybody who raises his hand against any of these three creations--this is this triple concentric order in which God created humanity --is blaspheming, violating the law of God. And this is a profound thought, which is deeply, deeply embedded in this Pope.

And this is why he goes down on all fours, or used to while he was still able to do so, and kisses the soil--in fact the airport tarmac--of every place,

every nation that he visits. And this is why he is, in that sense, a nationalist, with an intensity which is quite difficult even to imagine. It goes right through to a sort of Christology. And he just thinks of humanity in this triple creation. And that's why he's so intensely sensitive to invasions, occupations, suppressions of subject nations.

This matters to him, I think to many Western theologians, much more than it should. I mean, just to take a small example, when he came to Scotland it was in 1982. Scotland at that time was in a difficult situation really. It was of course part of the United Kingdom, it was discontented, and yet totally lacking in self-confidence about where to go, what to do, how to express its sense of identity. And at that point, the Pope arrived, got out of the aircraft, knelt down and kissed the soil. And he then went on to speak to Scotland's Catholics and say, "You are a nation." The effect of that was absolutely electric. It was profound. So the view of the triple creation, the triple concentric creation by God, is to me the most Polish.

Some people say, "To understand this Pope, you have to understand what suffering means to him."

To be fair to the Pope, I don't think that he is voicing any profound Polish tradition when he talks about the importance of personal suffering as an example to the Church and the faithful. I mean, it is quite a common belief of course, throughout the Church, but it is not a specifically Polish one. And as a matter of fact, the Poles have had so much to put up with, they have had such an awful two centuries, that personal tales of what a tough life you had, or what horrible things were done to you, don't cut a great deal of ice in Poland. They happened to everybody. So it's not like the kind of awed, embarrassed space which spreads round somebody who stands up in New York or London and says, "Well, I was tortured, actually." Nobody knows what to say, but they're appalled. And they feel we must learn from this somehow.

In Poland everybody was tortured--well, not everybody, but a large proportion of the population. A fifth of the entire population was killed during the war, or died of its consequences, unnaturally. The devastation was enormous. They're extremely tough people. And although it sounds strange to say it, they're a people who are not particularly sorry for themselves. They're more energetic and vigorous than that. And so this is not a people which sits around thinking that our individual suffering matters. What they did think was that their collective suffering had a religious--theological even--significance, and that was Messianism.

But isn't that a way of wresting meaning out of something that seems senseless and chaotic and painful? I see this as very much tied to what you were talking about--Messianism is making it matter.

Yes, but Messianism is about the collective, isn't it? It's about the nation, the imagined community, or whatever you'd call it. How Poles coped with their own personal horrors and agonies is a different matter. I mean, they didn't say, "I am glad. I comfort myself by thinking that I am part of this great act of redemption and resurrection." They thought about each other, they thought about their country, they thought about what might happen after it was all over, and they just toughed it out.

I think that it's true that in the Warsaw rising, that really was a pretty special moment. That was this huge, last great urban insurrection in history really. And the cost of it was a quarter of a million dead, in 1944. And at that point the people fighting then, who were not just men, but were women and children as well, did move into a kind of incandescent, extraordinary state of mind, in which they did feel that they were collectively, in some sense, following the Passion of Christ for the sake of humanity, that there was something destined about what was happening to them. And strange things like... it happened in 1944. The numerals 44 come in one of the great mystical verse plays of the early nineteenth century by Mickiewicz, as a kind of cabalistic symbol of the moment of truth and revelation for Poland, you know. And all of that was taken up.

That was an interesting idea you threw out earlier--the ways in which the experience of the war, the horror of it, the sheer struggle to survive, shaped in many ways his ideas about contraception and sexuality.

One of the reasons for the Pope's attitude to sexual things-- to reproduction, contraception, abortion and all the rest of it--is very simple indeed. It's not theological at all. It comes out of his own experience.

Growing up during the Nazi Occupation, he saw around him the Jews being destroyed, and they were destroyed. The Poles were next on the list, and indeed the destruction, the genocide of the Poles appeared to be already beginning, and it went some way. It was a question whether in ten years time there'd be any Polish people left. Clearly, there wouldn't be any Jews left, but the Poles were next, and perhaps they would go too.

So, the lesson he drew from this was that the process of protecting birth and reproduction was a matter of survival. It wasn't so much a theological question, although obviously it always had been in the Catholic Church. It was just a question of--were there going to be any human beings left in this country or not? And for that reason--it wouldn't even be right to say nationalistic reasons, or patriotic reasons--just for sheer, humane concern about people round him. Terror. Which was shared by everybody. Because it's very difficult to imagine that a people can think they're going to be wiped out. It's very difficult to imagine that people can say to themselves, "Maybe in twenty five years time there'll be nobody alive who can speak Polish." It seems outrageous, unimaginable. That's how people thought. And the Nazis helped them to think like that, by what they said and what they did.

So, the Pope formed his attitudes. For example, I knew a young woman who he was extremely fond of. He had a very personal care for her. He taught her to ski, in fact, when he was cardinal, and that went back to her mother, who'd been in Auschwitz. And she'd been one of the women experimented on by Mengele and his monsters, and they irradiated her ovaries to see what would happen. No anesthetic, of course. And she survived, as a matter of fact. And she didn't die.

After the war, she married, she was still very young, and she tried to have a baby. People said, "This is preposterous." Anyway, years of operations finally produced this miracle, and she had one child, which was this extremely beautiful, intelligent girl who had this strange, special, personal kind of foster-fathership almost from the Pope, who knew that she was a miracle, and a miracle about survival. If you think of how he felt about her, you begin to understand--even if I don't agree with the conclusions he arrived at--but you begin to understand why he came to these conclusions for reasons which are not just about theology and dogma.

One of the acts of this film is about the Jews and this Pope's remarkable relationship to the Jews. Can you talk about the complexity of this part of his story?

When one talks about this Pope and his relationship to the Jews and to Judaism, it's not a simple story. There's a kind of spiritual journey. There are things which he derived from the past. One of the things that I think people have to understand about him is that in a way he's a very expansionist Pope. He used to dream, and probably still does, about eventually a reunion with the Orthodox church, the sort of reunion which would really extend Catholic authority far into the East. And in a way he was never entirely free, certainly for the first part of his life, from the idea that a Jew who had converted to Catholicism had risen, had transcended their Jewishness. This is a thought which is repulsive to Jews all over the world, but nonetheless he meant it benevolently, because at that time he was not all that sophisticated about the attitude of Jewish communities and Jewish leaderships in the outside world.

I remember the first 1979 visit to Poland. He was at Auschwitz. I remember they put up this huge wooden platform over the ramp--over the rails--for the trains full of Jews which came in and unloaded them to the gas chamber. And he was there, and he conducted a mass. And then afterwards, a long file of nuns went past him and he blessed each one of them. And afterwards somebody who was standing beside him said, "The most extraordinary thing happened. One of the nuns stopped and said, 'I want you to know that I am a Russian Jew who converted.'" And the Pope was immensely moved. Tears ran down his face, and he embraced her.

And I think that's very significant. Because he isn't free, to put it mildly, of Catholic triumphalism about other faiths, even within Christianity, and the way in which he pushed ahead with the canonization of Edith Stein, who after all was a Catholic of Jewish origin, who was sent to the gas chambers by the Nazis because she was, in their view, biologically a Jew, yet he made her a saint without... He understands peoples' Jewish feelings about that sort of thing, but still it was strong in him, the idea that this was a very special form of self-transcending. That somebody of the Jewish faith could become a Catholic martyr was something really wonderful.

So, there's a lot to say in praise of the Pope's attitude to Jews. But you have to remember that his attitude is not Western liberalism. It is not a kind of idea of, "Gee, we're going to tolerate and embrace and love everybody of every faith, color and creed." It's more complicated. In a way it's more muscular, even if it's very difficult to accept.

One of the things of course, which is an element of the tradition out of which the Pope comes, and again this is going back to Polishness, is the idea that was very strong among Catholic intellectuals in the nineteenth century, that Poles and Jews - who live together after all, there was symbiosis - most Jews in the world lived in Poland for most of the last five, six, seven hundred years. And they lived together, and had this uneasy symbiosis. They never really liked each other but there they were together. They were part of each other. Poland was them added together; it wasn't one or the other.

And in this period something happened which has been interpreted since like this: They taught each other something. The Poles learned from the Jews the idea that you can be a chosen nation with a destiny, that God can choose a specific people, and say, "You are going through the desert. You are going through the wilderness and through the Red Sea, but in the end you will come somewhere, and all these sufferings are a form of pilgrimage. Because there is a table laid for you somewhere at the end of the road by me." And in return of course, although this is a much more disagreeable thing to say, the Jews learned from Polish nationalism, at a rather later stage, actually, in the nineteenth century. They learned from the extreme nationalism of, let's say, the Likud in Israel, which is directly derived from extreme Polish nationalism in the late nineteenth century, which said, the principal of nationalism is national egoism. You have to understand that no other nation matters, no other nation is even real. Only us. We alone exist, we alone have rights. That is the only nationalism which is going to survive in the modern world and triumph. Of course, extraordinarily, this was taken up by some of the founders of Zionism who came from Poland and were brought up among that sort of thing, and it went to Israel. So they did. I mean, not all they learned from each other was evil, but they learned a lot.

What do you know about Padre Pio? He's a very important figure for the Pope, a side of the Pope--that fierce folk piety that co-exists with that sophisticated, philosophical engagement with ideas and new religious thought. Padre Pio is also a figure who's meant a lot to many other people, including Graham Greene. What does it tell us about this Pope, as another light on him?

I think the Pope's enduring affection for and interest in Padre Pio is at first sight quite surprising because you think of the Pope as a quite fastidious intellectual in some respects. Why then is he so interested in that kind of folkish, snake-oil level of religion? Is it because he has a patronizing, condescending attitude towards simplicity? "How beautiful is the simplicity and naiveté of people who can believe stuff like that!"

Well, I think the first thing to understand is, when you talk about the Pope as an intellectual, you have to be careful not to go over the top. Yes, he is an intellectual in some respects, but don't forget, Polish theology never really produced anything. There isn't really any Polish theology which is interesting, creative, which really comes up to the challenges of this century and the next. It isn't there. It's a very, very conservative church. And it has lived on its relationship with a nation, and rather than through the excellence of its thought.

So, the Pope is not a great theologian. And the question arises whether, although he is an intellectual, whether there is an anti-intellectual element in him as well. And I have sometimes felt that there is. You see, what he did with the Church anyway, when he became Pope, he looked round and he said, "This is completely disorderly. What this Church needs is authority. It doesn't need all this discussion about should we dilute the faith in this way, should we liquidate the deposit of faith, should we deal with the authority of the Vatican. We don't need this! What we need is people to do what they're told in the Church, this is an organization. And we have a lot of people who've become incredibly arrogant. They are arrogant, because they think that they can deal with the simple, firm beliefs of ordinary Catholic people and pull them apart, and leave them bewildered, and without direction in the world. And that is arrogance! Typical, intellectual arrogance. I won't have it. I'm going to impose order. I'm going to tell people what to do."

And this is what he did, with in many ways disastrous results on the Church which still endure. And he did stamp out dissent. And a lot of people--under extremely reactionary and right-wing popes in the past from time to time--had nonetheless got away with being heretical. But not under John Paul II. I think that his attitude to, what you might call, simple, instinctive faith is a positive one. He's not a sickly sentimentalist. He doesn't think, "How wonderful that people should have this naive, irrational faith." He actually wants people to think. But he wants them to think what he wants them to think. That's what's important to him. And of course as in the case of many simple people, they do.

Again, one goes back to Poland, but you have to because this is his training, his formation. And in Poland, Catholicism at the grass roots is a very strange apparatus of beliefs, some of which not really Christian at all, some of which are profoundly superstitious, some of which are really quite puzzling attitudes to other people and how to behave. And there isn't a great deal of simple, simpering piety. I don't know why it is that in Poland they've never really fancied the Infant of Prague which is a kind of cherubic miracle-working image which seems to convey all this sickly sentimentality to me, about--isn't it wonderful that people have switched their brains off and just believe, tenderly, ignorantly, beautifully? It's not really a Polish attitude.The thing that they worship, no doubt equally irrationally, is the face of a woman with three scars on her cheek. Somebody who's been abused by foreign soldiers, but who knows what the world's about.

The Pope's devotion to the Virgin Mary--does that come out of, how is it expressed, and what does it reveal?

Well, the Marian cult is supreme in Poland, and it has its attractive side and its less attractive side. At the moment, Radio Maria is the big Catholic radio station in Poland which, as I would put it, spews out the most appalling extreme nationalist prejudice and racialism, largely through chat-shows giving voice to the people who ring in. And this is all done in the name of Mary. It's called Radio Maria. It's extraordinary. And at the moment it's very, very influential. It's listened to by millions of people. That's one extreme.

The other extreme is the attitude which says that, Mary is, in a way, an emblem of a sort of sophistication. That she has suffered intensely, as people do in countries which are unlucky, and that she knows about it. This is why the Black Madonna ofCzestochowa is so important. It's of course before that, the Madonna was declared to be Queen of Poland. There's a reason for that, too, which is, in a country that tends to, from time to time, have no leader or to have no king, or indeed to have several kings with each neighboring power claiming that their candidate is the right one. Then you have to have somebody else, who is indestructible. So in Scotland when this sort of thing happened, they had a thing called the Lion, they said, "You have to have a king. Why are you holding out in this fortress?" And they said, "We are holding it for the Lion." And in the same way Poland used the Madonna for that. Maybe it could have been somebody else, could have been a saint. But it was Mary.

And then the figure of the Black Virgin, or rather her face in the great monastery of Czestochowa has become, of course, the central national symbol, and it has been so for certainly well over one hundred and fifty years. And it's an old icon from the East somewhere, nobody quite knows where. And it is a very sad, very dark face, very oriental Madonna with these three slashes on her cheeks, which were in fact inflicted by sixteenth century Hussite Protestants from Bohemia, who captured Czestochowa and attacked the icon because it was popish. They didn't like it. They slashed it with their swords, and it still has these three scars. And the existence of those three scars is of course what makes her authentic in Poland. People feel she went through it too. It's very important to people. Immensely important. It's a talisman. People in the worst times used to hand around tiny emblems of the Black Madonna which you hid behind your lapel.

What do you know about the Pope's devotion to the Virgin Mary?

The Pope seems to have used the Virgin Mary as the emblem, the justification for his feelings about women, reproduction, survival, you know. And for the sanctity of what you might call uninterrupted reproductive process in human beings. And also because of --here one gets back to these back loops about Polish history, and Polish feeling--that, given that I think his feelings about sex and birth are to do with survival, they're not just to do with theology. But they're to do with a nation is going to die, if it lets anybody interrupt that process, even if it's Communists who do it. And that must make a great accusation against the Communist regime, by the most extreme Catholics during the '60s and '70s for example because they're trying to exterminate the nation. How? By distributing free condoms, and by putting free abortion on demand on the national health service in Poland, they are trying to exterminate the nation--quite an African point of view, in a way. Sort of thing you used to hear in East Africa about British policies in the same area.

So he associates that. And then Mary is significant. Because given that Mary is the queen and protector of Poland, that she is also the one who is supposed to preside and to grieve over any attempt to wipe out her people, to exterminate, as it were, her family, the Poles--it has this sort of emotional dimension as well.

Do you see a sort of an evolution in Wojtyla's interests and skills as he has becomes a leader--in addition to being a great spiritual leader?

It seems to me the Pope's interest in politics developed quite slowly and late, unlike some other famous Catholic figures in post-war Poland. He came out of the Occupation, I think, in a state of--not exactly denial--but I think he wanted to withdraw in different senses. I think he wanted to be a writer, he played around with that, he tried to get into monasteries, and perhaps fortunately didn't do so. And then, as a priest in extremely difficult times, he had to look at the question of-- what was your relationship to the Communist state going to be, anyway? What should you do? I mean, you had various alternatives. One, you could go completely over the top, and try and find the remaining anti-Communist guerrillas fighting in the woods and join them. That was out of the question. Then you could join on the other flag, a deeply corrupt, ominous organization called Pax, which was a kind of Communist-approved lay-Catholic movement, which had the monopoly of making religious objects and so on. That clearly he would have regarded as a form of collaboration.

But then you could follow the great Cardinal Wyszynski, the Primate, and you could go into the complex business of negotiating concessions here, in return for some concession from the State there, and be really intensely political, but all the time, compromising. Not a pretty sight, and certainly not a pretty sight to the Vatican, who, although people don't like to remember that now, the Vatican thought Wyszynski was a collaborator. They poured abuse on him because they thought he was selling out to the Communists, the "Church of Silence," and so on.

Little did they know that in fact what he was doing was digging the Church into a position in which not only would it survive, but of course it would eventually be much tougher, and lodged in much firmer defensive positions than the Communist State, and would triumphantly outlive it. However, that certainly wasn't either a thing which the Pope wanted to do. And he really got drawn into politics, sideways, through his own personal friendships with clever people in Krakow, some of whom were older than he was, some were younger, but they were trying to be journalists, they were profoundly Catholic, but they felt that, it is no good being a Catholic journalist, for example, if you can't write. We have a heavy censorship. Therefore let us see what we can write which can get printed without betraying what we believe in. And so they produced this publishing house, and a daily paper in Krakow, which was a wonderful, tenacious, very intelligent series of compromises about social Catholicism.

And it was acceptable--it got from time to time, at different periods, ferociously censored by the State. Other times, they let it say what it wanted to say. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the Pope knew these people, some of them were friends of his since he'd been a boy, and he felt that, as he advanced up the hierarchy, that he would like to protect them and encourage them and of course he did.

And how much he did, I still to this day don't know. I mean--who he may have hid, who he may have helped to leave the country, what clandestine documents may have passed through his hands on the way to the outside world--I would guess quite a lot, quite a lot. But this didn't come, you know, from an initial political commitment. It came out of a feeling that these people were his friends, and that although, as I say, he didn't entirely approve of everything they were doing, and he had quite serious arguments, as time passed and particularly for the younger people in that Catholic journalist set, he became the great authority, the great protector. And in this quite practical way, he learned to think about human rights, and how important it is to be able to speak freely and to speak well, and so it was a sort of political education for him as well.

...You see, there's a big difference between him and Cardinal Wyszynski, and the way in which they handled the Communist state. Admittedly Wyszynski, when he started, was handling the Communist state in its full flush of early confidence, the Stalinist period and afterwards when, if you were a Communist, you knew you were going to win, you knew that Polish Catholicism would die out, and that you would be left triumphant. It was just a matter of scientific certainty. So he was dealing with them when they were in that mood.

By the time that Wojtyla, later the Pope, was Cardinal in Krakow, when he was a bishop and so on, of course a lot of the confidence and stuffing had been knocked out of the Communist regime. They were not at all certain what was going to happen to them, how it was going to end up. And this allowed Wojtyla, the present Pope, to approach politics in a rather different way from the great Cardinal Wyszynski, who was Primate of Poland. Now, Wyszynski's attitude was that you remain superb and aloof, but what you're really doing is you're patrolling a kind of concordat which you've reached and which you consider satisfactory. And the moment it is violated you speak out with tremendous force and emphasis, like this.

Wojtyla's attitude was that this regime is coming to bits. It is going to die. It was his turn to know that Catholic Poland was going to triumph, and that Polish Communism was going to be exterminated, and his real concern was in what circumstances is this going to happen. That also brought the Pope into practical politics. Because he had to think, not simply, wouldn't it be wonderful if, as they used to put it, the alien Bolshevik ideology of hatred were replaced by the authentic, Polish Christian religion of love, how nice that would be. But what if it were replaced in such a way that it led to a Soviet invasion, and a war? Because that was obviously a very, very strong possibility. So he had to think, politically, in a different way. He had to think about managing the decline of Communism in Poland, and by implication in Eastern Europe. That wasn't a problem Wyszynski ever had to face. And so their politics were very different.

There was considerable tension between them as well.

There was personal tension between them. I don't know what Wojtyla thought when, for example, in October 1956 Poland came to a moment of absolutely dramatic crisis, Khrushchev said, "You are trying to change your regime. You are trying to be more free internally, and to change your relationship with the Soviet Union, and we are going to invade." The tanks began to move along the roads towards Warsaw. The then the leader of the Polish Communists defied Khrushchev at the last moment. Khrushchev backed off. Now at that point Wyszynski was let out of prison where he'd been, rushed back to Warsaw. And he said, among other things, "Children, it is sometimes harder to live for Poland, than to die for her."

And... I always find it very moving that he said that, because it showed first of all he understood how dangerous the situation was. Any provocation, you know, would have led to a blood bath, and there would have been a war, possibly leading to World War III, I don't know. But anyway, there certainly would have been a blood bath. And anyway the thing was to hold the Poles in this moment of supreme excitement, and anger, and hope. He said, "You've got to learn to live for Poland, not just to die. That's easy. We've always been good at that. Now let's try living."

Now, it may be--I don't know--that the young Wojtyla thought that was a retreat from responsibility. I hope he didn't, because Wyszynski was right. But I think when he came to enjoy high authority himself, his attitude was a different one. He didn't want people to die for Poland, but neither did he want them to make ugly compromises for Poland. Perhaps he would have said the same thing as Wyszynski in the same circumstances.

But the way in which he thought about his country and thought about politics, and thought about the great confrontation between Christianity and Communism was really a very different one. And again, different sort of approach. Wyszynski was a great prince of the Church. People loved him but they were terrified of him. Extraordinary, the awe which he created, this upright man with his slightly wolf-like face, his long gray eyes. He was very scary, I tell you, I remember him well. And people had an absolute trust in him, but they were a bit afraid of him. And he didn't really go down to the grass-roots, and he didn't mingle with the masses exactly. That wasn't what he was about. Whereas Wojtyla was always a populist, you know. He always liked common people, ordinary people, he liked talking to them, and of course he still does. And he's sociable. Wyszynski wasn't. And he has a strong feeling. Again, it's because of the different periods in which they had high office.

You see, Wyszynski couldn't afford to show a close interest let's say, in a steelworker making steel. If he did that, somebody would make a film of it, and say, "He is supporting the regime and the proletarian struggle to increase production," or something. He couldn't do that. And he was left with saying, "The private peasant is close to God." Not a very useful remark, whether it's true or not. So, it was open to Wojtyla on the other hand to say, you know, "Hard work, physical work, the working class of this country, needs pity, interest, sympathy. It's been abandoned. All the promises which have been made to it are empty. The health service is a joke. It's an obscenity. The standards of social security are disgusting. People are being crudely exploited." He could say that, and he could talk to working people without fear of compromise. Much easier for him.

Can you talk about the Pope's impact on the Polish people on those two visits? What was it like, what was he doing to them?

It was obvious in both of these great pilgrimages to Poland which I witnessed that something was happening, in the sense of a current was running between him and the crowd. And it wasn't just that he was saying, "I know that Poland is occupied by an alien power, I know that you want to be free, I want you to be free, we will..." It wasn't just that. It was something much more interesting, and it was about rights, in a sense.

I remember watching from the walls of the monastery at Czestochowa--a very hot day-- and there were again something like 150,000 people out there, underneath the walls, and the Pope was speaking down to them. And I saw that what he was doing was, as it were, holding up a mirror to each individual person. Each person got the impression the Pope was really speaking to them, that he was exclusively available for them. And you're dealing with a society here which had been through thirty years of anonymity, thirty years of being a mass, in which their individuality, and, if you like their humanity, had really been discarded as not mattering. They didn't matter to anybody, as persons. Because the fact that they were different was inconvenient. Important thing was the way in which they were alike.

And there they were--great, vast, shabby, slightly malnourished, crammed together, mob of 150,000 patient people, men, women and some children. And what he did was he made them think, "Yes, I matter." It's very simple really. "I signify. I'm not just here to make the numbers up. He knows I exist. He knows I'm here. I am significant." Now how you do that--you know, this is a trick of a sort, I suppose, known to very great orators--but how you communicate to an individual this overwhelming sense of their own significance, it's through giving them the feeling that you know them as individuals, not just as a crowd. Each one, you're speaking to each one severally. And somehow he did that, and the result, of course, was overwhelming, because people felt, "He knows that I am me. For the first time I am hearing a public voice speaking my language, saying that I exist, that I am valid as an individual. Up to now, you know, I am valued as an individual to my life and my children, and my friends perhaps, but nowhere else. But now suddenly, on this universal public scale, I am recognized."

And that's an overwhelming experience emotionally for human beings, coming out of what they'd been living through, and in a way it's the language of individual human rights. It's to say, each individual is irreplaceable. It's not collective rights, but it's about the right of the individual, individuality.

Could you talk a little about how language had been abused, and deformed, and what this Pope said, and how, and how the Polish people responded.

One of the effects of this feeling of being identified, of being recognized as an individual for who you were, irreplaceable, was to do with language. Because, yes, he was speaking their language, but he was speaking their language not just because it was Polish, but in a way they'd never heard it before. He was speaking in public and yet he was telling the truth. He was speaking in public using a vocabulary of literate, intelligent, clean Polish, which you just never heard in public at all. Everybody spoke in public in this tired, adulterated jargon, you know, which Poles got absolutely used to, until they couldn't imagine that anybody would stand up on a tribune somewhere and speak in any other way. And suddenly, there was this man talking to them as they talked to themselves, perhaps. Absolutely freely, candidly, with this direct, personal understanding between him and each individual in the crowd.

I remember a young man saying to me after one of those meetings, "I feel that I never heard anybody speak to me in my life before, nobody ever talked to me before, because nobody had ever spoken that voice before in public." People tried to describe it by saying, "Well he speaks such beautiful Polish," or "He pronounces things so well, so much better than Jarulzelski." But it was a way of saying something else, which was, people had gotten completely used to clean language used to convey the truth in public. It was new, and it was shattering.

I also remember a sort of schmaltzy moment.... I was standing next to him, 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 like that, 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.

Has Poland always been a country that's so close to your heart? How did that come about?

I think it all started when I was a child in Scotland. The Polish army were there. Because the Polish army that fought in the September Campaign--the remnants had managed to escape into Romania and Hungary, and then the remnants of them, well most of them actually, were transported round, and got to France. There they regrouped, fought in 1940 in France, and then of course they were defeated. And then the survivors of that were taken off by the British and brought to Britain. And there Churchill had no idea what to do with these people. There were a lot of them. I mean, there were not as many as one hundred thousand but there were about seventy or eighty or something. Put 'em in Scotland. So they all went to Scotland where they sat for the next few years, training, defending...

Anyway as a child I remember them round me, you see, and they were incredibly glamorous, amazing creatures with these long cloaks and berets speaking this grotesque language and they had sort of riding boots and strange muzzles and things and they were fun. They were also very generous and interesting. They were glamorous. Of course Scottish women found them just overwhelmingly glamorous. I mean, nobody had ever kissed their hands before, or asked them to waltz, you know, in a village hall. You can imagine. Boof! So that's where I first got interested in the Poles and then, as a boy I got interested in Polish history, because it seemed to be completely unlike anyone else's! It was unlike the version of European history which we were taught. It was all inside out, and completely unknown episodes seemed to matter. You know, it was just like being on the other side of the moon. So I thought, "Well, that's where I'd like to be. At least nobody's going to tell me what to think."

And then I started going to Poland and I was just knocked out by the quality of imagination, and energy, and fun. They're tough, but they're so clever. Then you know, I got a bit--haven't said disillusioned--but the longer you know Poland, the more aware you are of the appalling defects and the fearful kind of collective weaknesses of character. And you realize that the person you like the most can in the next second say something absolutely unforgivable. Something that normally you would say, "I cannot ever like anybody who makes a remark like that." And then you find out that that remark in turn is made up of two other things, which, you know, it's just an endless exploration. A very, very complicated country. You never come to the end of this sort of thing, which is one of the reasons it's so stimulating. Also, when you consider, well it's not a small country, forty million people for God's sake, but it does have this huge literature. Quite disproportionately enormous, and in quality, really pretty good.

Nobel poets in the last ten years. Your feeling for this country is palpable and very moving, and it gives a real resonance and charge to your memories. What do you feel about this Pope?

Oh, you know how it is--how can you approve of this guy, in some ways? I can't. But I couldn't hate him, because you know, I know from the Polish dimension what he did for people. And it was magical, it was extraordinary. And it wasn't a backward achievement. It was, if you like, a modernizing achievement. It wasn't just creating a backward-looking liberty, but it was confirming to people that they were grown-up people who really could do what they dreamt of doing. So they did it next year.

What's the part of his policy that offends you the most?

I think it's got to be the sexual policy, in all its dimensions. You know, it's not that I'm not untouched by his sense of survival and Mary, and the miracle that is constituted by any baby getting born at all and surviving. I mean that's the world as he once had to see it. I don't understand that.

But in the modern world it's just the reverse of what it should be, and the attitude towards contraception, what can you say? It's ridiculous. And it won't last. And also, I know damn well that when the day comes and the Catholic Church--when somebody throws the switch and says, "Okay, women can be priests."--at that moment, the Catholic Church will be more sort of adept, imaginative, understanding, rushing women into holy orders than any other church at all. They'll have fewer problems, actually.

I mean it's all sort of unreal. In some ways the Catholic Church is quite... I wouldn't say it was good with women, but it is below the surface quite a feminized church. Sounds an odd thing to say, but there are so many elements which are just waiting for women to be priests, because I think women's religiosity is rather different from male religiosity. And the difference is, if you take a Protestant church, if you take the Church of England, typically, you know sort of Anglican state church, the difference is there. The difficulty they have with women is stupendous. It really is difficult. And it's all tied up with, I don't know, ideas about power, ideas about masculinity. It's tied up with a long-standing gay tradition in the Anglican clergy, I mean the woman-hating gay tradition as opposed to the broader, more generous gay tradition. These are things which the Catholic Church is a long way away from that.

home | discussion | interviews | his faith | testimonies on faith | the church and sexuality | the pope and communism

biography | anecdotes | his poems | "abba pater" | encyclicals | video excerpt | tapes & transcripts | synopsis | press | teachers' guide
FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
../etc/bio.html ../sex/ ../etc/faith.html ../interviews/ ../talk/ ../