frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

Interview with  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

You were on one or two of the early Poland trips in which the crowds for the Pope were extraordinary. What interpretations can you give on the role he played, or did not play, destabilizing Communism?

roberto suroI remember during his second trip to Poland, a Mass late one afternoon in Gdansk. It was a big open area ringed with concrete block apartment buildings, workers' housing. And it was the climax to this part of a trip where he had been barnstorming the Baltic coast of Poland, and there had been a big buildup to this event. The inevitable question that arose when you're covering one of these things is, "How many people are there?"

He had drawn crowds of a million people before in other places, certainly in Poland, and to see the crowd you had to get up. So I climbed up a tower that had been erected for lights that were shooting down onto this altar late in the afternoon. I remember getting about 20 feet up this ladder and looking back and I still couldn't see the end of the crowd. I could see these apartment buildings off in the distance, and there were people beyond the buildings still. So I climbed up further, and the wind was blowing, and I was kind of wondering--what I was doing climbing up this sort of rickety metal tower. It must have been a good four or five stories off the ground, and looked back again, and I could see that the crowd just stretched beyond the buildings--clearly just everywhere you could see, there were people.

His most profound belief is you have to understand human history in a spiritual context. You make a mistake if you look at  a period of human history and try to understand it merely in cultural, political, economic terms... The Mass had just begun. They were about to start the first hymn. And out of what had been this totally silent crowd, a million voices all at once struck one note, beginning this, a very solemn, sort of typically Polish, melancholy hymn. And the sound of those voices was just a form of human power that you don't experience, except in circumstances like this. There aren't very many mass spiritual occasions in our world anymore. It was a clear sense of the unifying power, the sense that everybody in that crowd knew this hymn by heart ... it was sort of this sad, slow, reverential hymn coming from so many voices at once.

And it gave a sense of how the Pope played into an essential part of the Polish identity at that point. He touched people deep in their sense of who they were. And that was certainly the reawakening of a kind of nationalism around the Church, a reawakening of Poland as a kind of independent culture, as a unique place. It was part of what led to the Solidarity movement, part of the desire to overthrow what was seen very much as sort of Russian rule, as they experienced Russian rule under the czars.

But to the Poles, to some extent, it was cultural and nationalistic as much as it was ideological. And he touched that, a very powerful gut sense in people. I never felt it as strongly as I did that afternoon in Gdansk. And it's almost kind of an unconscious kind of emotion that he played on, and it was a temporary one. But there was a period there, from the time of his election into the mid-'80's, when he symbolized a sense of Poland for people.

You were there also at a darker time, when he came back and was bitterly disappointed with what he saw. Could you describe that trip to Poland and what you felt the nature of his disappointment was?

You have to remember that the Pope left Poland to go to Rome when Poland was still very much under Communist rule. And he left Poland with this deep personal belief that there was this virgin Church there below the layers of totalitarianism. That as soon as Communist rule was lifted, there would be a great spiritual reawakening in Poland. There had been this Church that had survived fascism, survived Communism.

And it was a great shock for him when that didn't happen, when that Church didn't rise up after the fall of Communism, in part because he didn't realize that under Communism, abortion had been more rampant than in the West, that alcoholism was a tremendous problem, that sexual mores had fallen to what, certainly he would consider, terribly immoral standards. It seems this sort of crystallized him on the eve of his third trip---the first one after the fall of Communism---at which he went from one place to another preaching on sexual morality, in particular on birth control and abortion.

There was a very striking scene at a race track, late in an afternoon, a rainy scene--rain pouring down on a crowd of several hundred thousand people under umbrellas, and he gave this angry sermon on abortion. Talking about, "You're destroying, you know, you're not rebuilding. We need to rebuild." And for one of the rare times, he addressed them as fellow Poles, speaking of himself, "I say this to you, because Poland is my mother. And it's your mother, and you can't abandon this."

And he shook his fists at the crowd, clearly angry, at the fact that now two or three years after the end of Communist rule, Poland had become very westernized, very materialistic. And it was adding those feelings in his eyes to what was coming out from underneath the shell of Totalitarianism was alcoholism, abortion, these other problems. It must have been a moment of tremendous disappointment to him. He gave this angry sermon. There was polite applause from a rain-soaked crowd of people who just walked away. It was on that trip that he must have seen that his message wasn't getting across, that he, the Polish Pope, had (a) misunderstood Poland, and (b) having been Pope for more than a decade already, had not been able to lead his home Church in the direction that he wanted.

Tell me about the pun and the melancholy feeling you witnesssed on one of his visits.

I remember a sort of very 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, these were the people he administered to, 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--a folktale--that is 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, sort of nodding his head to the music sort of felicitously. When they stopped, sort of 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.

People say, "Yes, he's an ambitious man with the Lord's dreams, but this man does ache for Poland. He aches for the place he left."

There's nowhere else that he really let down, where you could see he was a different person in Poland, a different Pope, because he was in familiar surroundings among people where he could pun, he could joke, he would improvise. It was a different performance entirely. And as much as his linguistic abilities are highly touted--and indeed, he can speak in many languages, he can read in many more--he's only truly fully fluent in two languages, which are Polish and now Italian. In his home language, even though I didn't understand it and I was hearing it through an translator, all of a sudden he'd be off improvising something, which just didn't happen the same way in other countries.

What did you observe about the Pope's battle with liberation theology on his trips? Where did he begin and what did you observe?

John Paul became Pope at a time when liberation theology had begun to gather real momentum in Latin America. You have to go back to 1968, big bishops' conference in Medellin, Columbia, where the bishops of Latin America declared the Church had to have a preferential option for the poor. It had to dedicate itself to the poor of the continent. Over the course of 10, 15 years that idea, that priority, evolved into many forms of action that sort of get lumped into the idea of liberation theology, but basically means that the C hurch's primary mission had to somehow bring about social change in Latin America, to end the social injustice in which a very small percentage of the population, a handful of people, held all of the economic and political power, and the great majority lived in profound poverty.

This had been going along on its own trajectory when John Paul, someone who had very little understanding of Latin America, very little exposure to it, no great feel for the Third World, no understanding of that kind of poverty, no real experience with indigenous peoples, and in societies with sharp racial distinctions the sort that you have in Latin America with large Indian populations. But he has to deal with liberation theology.

The first couple of years of his papacy, he sort of watched and took it in and didn't do much. Then he went to Central America, particularly, to Nicaragua, where the Sandinista revolution had taken over in 1979, aided by the Church. At least the Church was neutral towards it. And you had an element of the Church, certainly, that strongly supported the Sandinista revolution, left-wing, certainly, in the eyes of some Communists, certainly interested in radical social change, in bringing about a whole new expression of Nicaraguan nationalism, throwing off the influence of the United States. There were priests who were much involved in this, including two who were in the cabinet of the Sandinistan government.

The Pope went to Nicaragua, first of all, trying to impose this kind of personnel matter of saying, "You can't be a priest and a government minister," which was an old rule, but one he wanted to enforce. But beyond that, he was very much concerned to understand what this "Popular Church" was, as they called it in Nicaragua. A Church that was allied with the aims of the revolution, identified itself with the poor, identified the Church and the Sandinista regime together as vehicles for the lifting up of poor people. This was something that had a lot of Latin American hierarchy quite worried, and the Pope was hearing that.

He went there, and there was a very dramatic Mass, where the background of the altar, as I remember was like sort of a revolutionary mural and it was like, very much sort of a Latin American revolutionary Mass. It was like Che Guevara's ghost was sort of wandering around, somewhere on the altar there. It was an unusual kind of combination of things. The crowd started cheering Sandinista slogans and interrupting the Pope, and it started turning into a sort of Sandinistan pep rally, the sort that they held all the time. At one point, he just screamed, "Silencio!" One of the few times visibly angry. The man has a bit of a temper and does not brook a lot of impertinence, and was clearly angry about this.

Well, he came back to Rome and said, "What the hell is going on in that country? Who are these people? And what kind of church is this?" And the prelates in Rome and the conservative hierarchy in Latin America said, "That is liberation theology! You saw it!" Well, he saw one very particular small strain of what was a continent-wide movement that had many, many manifestations. Many that were far more spiritual and pietistic than what was happening in Nicaragua. Many of them had nothing to do with explicit politics the way the Church did in Nicaragua. But that was his personal experience of it.

This set in motion a very deliberate strategy to crush liberation theology that was carried out over the course of about the next five years through a series of--looking back, you can see now--a series of very clear steps. One of the chief theologians, Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan monk from Brazil, was called to Rome for questioning in the same way that Galileo was questioned during the Inquisition--in fact, in the same building that Galileo was imprisoned in.

You had groups of bishops hauled to Rome for lecturing. And a very deliberate strategy of naming conservative, in some cases extremely conservative (politically speaking), bishops throughout the continent. And the strategy came to a kind of very dramatic conclusion during a trip to Latin America in 1985, where he first went to Columbia, and then to Ecuador.

I remember one day towards the end of this trip--it was a day of extraordinary contrast. It started in Guyahuil, Ecuador, an upriver banana port, tropical city, very poor, with a shantytown which is the swamp, which is literally built on a malarial swamp, that stretches out for miles and miles. People have come in from the countryside and lived in huge families basically in squalor. The Pope visited the shantytown first, and his message there was pretty much the traditional ones of sexual morality, "Don't use birth control. Don't pay attention to Protestant ministers. Stay faithful to the Church." [He] did not seriously address the extraordinary social injustice that created a place like that, other than to say that, "The Church feels your pain," the way he did whenever he addressed poor people.

He then flew to Lima, arriving just at sunset at the end of the day there. Peru, at the time, was in the midst of a civil war; Shining Path--these guerrillas--were wandering around in the mountains. There's battles. Nobody really understood what was going on in that country at that point. The army was conducting enormous human rights abuses. The guerrillas were killing people. The guerrillas had begun operating in Lima itself, setting off bombs from time to time.

He arrived at the airport, and I remember looking out the window of the plane and just seeing dozens of soldiers with dogs. These guys in sort of these black jumpsuits, and then the regular soldiers with helmets and rifles all over the place. I mean, they were quite worried that Shining Path were going to try and do something dramatic. In fact, on that trip the Shining Path began what became their sort of way of acknowledging the Pope's presence, which was to blow up the electrical substations in Lima and blacking out the city when he was there.

At the airport there was a regular arrival ceremony with airport officials and such, and his first stop was an address to the clergy of Peru. And he went there with the intent to kill liberation theology and he did. The clergy, thousands of priests and nuns and many bishops, were gathered in the the central plaza of Peru outside the cathedral, the plaza from which the Spanish viceroys ruled the Americas, place of enormous significance in the history of that city, of Peru, the whole Continent. And the Pope got up there--at that time it was dark and the place was lit with floodlights, ringed by soldiers, very dramatic setting, this baroque Spanish colonial architecture. The Pope ascends his little altar there, and his first words were, "I'm the vine, and you are the branches." And there was no doubt, from that point on, that he was saying, "I'm the boss, and I'm going to tell you what this Church believes." And he gave a speech which left no doubt that any argument in favor of class struggle, any thought of explicit political change, any interpretation of man's fate in solely economic terms, was beyond unacceptable.

The Catholic Church--you have to understand--the Pope can say that these beliefs are wrong, and if you believe them, you're sinning. That's part of the Pope's power, is to determine what the Church calls the magisterium, the accepted teaching. And he said to them, "There'll be no double magisterium. There'll be no double hierarchy. There's one Church, I'm it. I'm telling you what the story is on this issue." And after that, there was no room. The subject was not open for discussion. It was not open for exploration. It was not a matter to be researched, debated. It was over.

He then went off, with that kind of a basis, inside of the Church. Any bishop could go to a priest and say, you know, "This is not what you're preaching. It's against the accepted magisterium. You're in error." Which is a very grievous thing inside hierarchy. It's not just that you're making a mistake, you've sinned. You're in danger of losing the ability to speak the word of God when you're proclaimed in error. So it was a very decisive thing to do, to go right to the heart of this movement, and say, "Subject's closed. I don't want to hear about it anymore."

And he solidified that over time. Issued a encyclical in 1988, a powerful encyclical that blamed both the left and the right, both Communism and Capitalism, for the state of the developing world. And said that only a spiritual and moral analysis of man's condition will lead to true development, to true liberation for the poor nations of the world. And after that there was no further discussion of the possibility of the Catholic Church as a vehicle for real social change in Latin America.

This was a man who was very involved in politics in Poland, both as a Cardinal and as a Pope, someone who is very concerned about human rights. And he's probably the only world leader who speaks out about this obscene gap between the rich and the poor. And yet, his message seems so different in South America. To what extent is that based on the broadbrush of seeing Marxism everywhere and to what extent does it come very deep from inside himself?

First of all, it's very easy for anyone who's not Catholic or wasn't raised very much within the Church to misunderstand the importance of the institution, the idea of Mother Church, of the Church as a living, human organism, of it as an institution.

If you remember, Poland again informs the Pope's vision of the Church as an institution. In Poland, it was the cradle of Polish identity. It was the incubator. It was the one place where Polish identity survived depressions, Napoleon, the Russians, the Fascists, the Communists. This country that has been traipsed upon from East to West throughout its history, from the very beginning with these very brief moments of national independence. One institution that survived and preserved a sense of Polish identity has been the Church. And the Church has done that in part because it was unified. But the Church he understood and loved was unified in opposition.

He grew up in a Church that always had its back against the wall, that was trying to survive an atheist, totalitarian regime ... He didn't need to come to the Vatican to understand the importance of hierarchy institution in a Catholic world. To him, it was more than that. It was more profound than any Vatican bureaucrat would have sensed. Certainly it was something that in the West, where the Church as an institution is not nearly as important, particularly something that non-Catholics don't necessarily grasp. It was very easy to underestimate how important the institution was to him. In Poland, the Church was going in one direction against one foe. It was clear. It was simple. It was much easier to understand. It followed a trajectory across centuries dealing with whatever challenge was at the moment, making accommodation, shifting tactically to deal with leaders and with foreign oppressors and occupiers, but always sort of following their own basic trajectory. It was a place people could just sort of go back into.

Liberation theology and many of the other challenges that he faced and defeated, I believe he perceived as challenges to the institution. His words of condemnation against liberation theology was, "There will be no double magisterium. There will be no double hierarchy." He saw it as a challenge to the institution of the Church in part, because the hierarchy in Latin America, in large measure-- not entirely--favored the status quo there.

There were splits in the hierarchy--in Peru, in Brazil, in almost every other large Catholic country. There had been real moments of confrontation between bishops who favored social action and those who were essentially apologists for the upper classes in the 1970s for military regimes. So he perceived this as a threat to the institution. And that's how he dealt with that. I'm not sure how much he understood it in a Latin American context. I'm not sure how much he dealt with liberation theology in a political and economic context of Latin America. Beyond that, as a philosophical question, he thought it was a mistake ...

One thing, there's no doubt about his most profound belief is that you have to understand man as a spiritual being. You have to understand human history in a spiritual context. He's a philosopher, and this is an epistemological question to him. You make a mistake if you look at a set of events, a period of human history, and try to understand it merely in cultural, political, economic terms. You're missing it. You'll not understand it. You won't be able to see the truth and understand even what happened, let alone what should happen unless you understand it in spiritual and moral terms.

In liberation theology, to the extent that it departed--with an economic analysis of societt--and said, "The poor suffer and that there's immorality in economic status and that the Church has dedicated itself to economic change," to him was a fundamental misreading of the world. It was looking at using the wrong terms, the wrong vocabulary, the wrong analytical devices to see what was happening.

So those two things, the threat to the institution and the philosophical error, led him to a stern, almost brutal intervention in thought. What he did was to try and kill a thought, an idea, a set of ideas, a set of goals, which is not something that in this world, you certainly don't associate with a Pope, that kind of action, but it's one of the things that Popes do.

So how does this fit into an assessment of his place in history?

If you try and judge John Paul's place in history in a very secular sense, I think you have to look to Latin America, the Catholic continent, and what impact he had or might have had in there. He is a man of extraordinary power there.

Something that I recall came home to me at an event he held at an Incan fortress outside of Cuzco, Peru. It was an event held for the Andean Indians who populated that region. They set up the altar on this parapet of an Incan fortress that overlooked a hill that went down, and there was another hill opposite it high up in the mountains, fog sort of slipping even between this little valley. And down the hill and up the other side were hundreds of thousands of Andean Indians, probably at that time one of the largest gatherings of Andean Indians since the Spanish conquered the Andes 500 years earlier. And sort of brightly colored rugs and weavings, these sort of flutes playing through the Mass with these sort of long, sonorous tones as they were waiting for him.

I remember thinking if he had said to them, "We march on Cuzco tonight, we're taking it back," you know, he could have undone centuries of history. They would have said, "Fine." If he had gotten up there and said, "The Incas are back. The sixth Inca emerged from the cave again," they would have said, "Fine." He had the power to say or do anything with that crowd. He had extraordinary followings in Latin America, and an extraordinary power.

I remember talking to a priest who was there, who ministered to a group of Indians somewhere out in the mountains. And I remember saying, "What is this going to do for them, to see the Pope?" And he says, "All I know is, it's not going to help them eat."

He could have been a force for social change, and there was a real opportunity there. There was a moment that came because he had a Church that had for 20 years taken on the mission of trying to deal with social justice, that it proclaimed its preferential option for the poor. You had a moment formed by the end of the military regimes in Latin America through the end of the 1970s and through the early part of the 1980s, where the whole continent swung away from right-wing military dictatorships. You had a Pope of enormous power there. You had a set of ideas within the Church, some of them better than others, some of them more radical than others, but a ferment, an intellectual effort to try and come up with a way to apply Catholicism to the fundamental notion that society was unjust when 80 or 90 percent lived in poverty. You had priests who were trying to find ways to put this into practice all over the continent. The Pope decided to end that.

You ask yourself, "What would have happened if he hadn't? What if he had tried to guide it, instead of end it?" What if he had said, "I'm going to take this fervor, I'm going to take this awakening, I'm going to take this mission and direct it and declare that, "Yes, the Church will be a force for social change in Latin America," at time when a lot was in flux. It's idle speculation, but you have to wonder, the history of the continent would have been different. The lives of millions and millions of people lived in misery might have been different. Who's to say? He made his choice.

What's also telling about him is not just what he says, but what he doesn't say.

There were times when the most revealing aspects on a papal trip were the things that he didn't say. It was amazing his ability to ignore huge subjects sometimes. I remember on a trip to Argentina, not long after democratic rule had been restored there, at a time when the wounds were still fresh from the military dictatorship, when tens of thousands of people suffered the--"the disappeared"-- kidnapped by the security forces. And then on the other hand, a great many people who were also killed by the left-wing guerrillas had prompted this repression.

You had a country that was still really raw from an experience that they called the "Dirty War". It was a dirty war. No family was left unscathed. And here comes the Pope, the great Christian healer, preaching a message of reconciliation. He spent four, five, six days in Argentina. This was when he was at the peak of his traveling abilities, when he was literally barnstorming seven, eight, nine, ten events a day. You know, three, four cities, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, just back and forth, back and forth, nonstop, ending with a huge Mass in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of thousands of people.

Never during this entire trip had he ever mentioned the Dirty War, "the disappeared"-- never made any reference to the fact that the great issue in Argentina at that time was, "How do you reconcile us? How do you bring people back together? How far do you go in judging the guilty?" One of the big issues at the time was, "Do you hold the military accountable for crimes committed--human rights violations--during the dictatorship or not?" He ignored it. He said nothing about it.

On the last day, when one of his last events, he inserted into his text the word "the disappeared," and simply said, "There should be no more." Well, that wasn't the issue at the time. I mean, it was over. The question was, "How do you get past this?" It would have been like if the Pope had come to the United States in 1867 and didn't mention the Civil War and sort of brushed past it.

The reason for it, I discovered doing some reporting, was that the Argentine hierarchy, the bishops, didn't want to get into it. They were somewhat divided among themselves, but had some real exposure, because during the Dirty War they never spoke out, and so it would been almost an affront to them if the Pope had pointed out that there had been outrageous human rights abuses in this country when they, themselves, said very little, even as they were happening. It was an extraordinary of his ability to compromise what I think a lot of people would consider basic moral principles for an internal political imperative, and institutional imperative. To do what the bishops asked him to do.

Do you see the polical Pope emerging at the end, working as a force to destablizing regimes?

There were times when the Pope was willing to recognize the opposition in dictatorial regimes. It was a very limited form of political action in the context of say, Paraguay under General Stroessner, or Chile in the later stages of Pinochet's regime. Merely organizing a meeting where opposition groups were able to come in private was typically what happened to meet with the Pope, was an important gesture. A transformative gesture I wouldn't say, but it was one in each of these countries a lot of things were already happening.

When he arrived, certainly in Latin America, in these two cases in Chile and Paraguay, towards the end of long, dictatorial rules, it said that he helped dispatch "Baby Doc" Duvalier from Haiti, as I recall. In Paraguay, an easier target than in Chile, he lectured Stroessner on human rights. As I recall, it produced the briefest applause that any papal speech has encountered because it was in this sort of faux, baroque palace of a real tinhorn dictator, which basically was what Stroessner was at that time, receiving the Pope with the diplomatic court on these very formal occasions, where Stroessner read a speech and the Pope read a speech. The Pope's speech made some clearly--not in-your-face kind of remarks--but in that context, merely mentioning human rights and democratic values was quite an affront. There were a lot of Paraguayan military people around and stuff, and Stroessner, when the Pope finished, clapped like three times and then stopped. And on about the second clap, some of the other people around him clapped a couple times, as soon as he stopped and sat down, everybody else stopped clapping, too. There was this sort of this stillness about it.

So he was willing in a gentle, fairly diplomatic way, and through channels, to say things to people. He criticized Jarulzelski in Poland, but again, very diplomatically, often through coded language. Not saying, "This must end," not expressing outrage, but simply using in his position merely saying things like, "Human rights are good," in those contexts had a lot of power.

Tell me about the Mozambique trip. Was that just an isolated dramatic moment?

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, even just tentatively. 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. There had been in an area that had scene a great deal of fighting for many years. In fact, he never left the airport, not by a virtue of time, [but] for security reasons. The government could only guarantee that it could secure the perimeter of the airport. Literally, there were sort of armored personnel carriers and dozens of soldiers all over the place. He got off the plane and went up to a balcony on the terminal to address this very large crowd of people.

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, you know, "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 issue that one of the Vatican congregations had just finished resolving, had written a paper on, and they needed the Pope to say this, 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. It was 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.

Did you see these people when you were flying in?

Well, I remember seeing from the airplane ... it was one of these places where it was really foot trails for the course. The roads were all cut off. The railroad had been cut off. It was a place where there must have been enormous human suffering. And who knows what those people, I mean, maybe they were greatly uplifted by his mere presence. Who knows? But he certainly was perfectly capable then and on other occasions of just doing what he needed to do, and making no effort at interaction, which is not to say--there are many occasions when he did. He could be a great performer--I don't say that in a derogatory sense. He's clearly somebody aware of his presence, and aware of the drama. And aware, after a few years of doing this, that all it took was one little phrase, and it would be a headline.

I remember once in Sydney, there was a youth rally, and there were two young girls were doing some kind of a dance routine. They got up and they got him up, and for like half minute had him sort of between him while they were doing sort of a line dance. Well, there was just that cut of film in the still picture of him with two sort of tall, Australian teenage girls seeming to dance, and he was the "Dancing pope" in Australia for the rest of the trip. I mean, you know, there was times when he really tapped his toes during a hymn, and it was a huge, huge thing. I'm sure he was aware of that.

How did the Pope use his acting skills?

Well, the Pope really understood the dangers of overacting. He really understood that it took very little for somebody of his eminence, and with the ritual that surrounds him, I mean, with the costume that he had, to put it in very sort of base terms, and with the stage set that he was working with, he had to do very little to get a reaction.

In one of the things I noticed, over and over again, it had to be deliberate, because it was so purposeful and I saw it so many times, was his ascent to the altar at the beginning of a Mass. Always a very dramatic moment. It was often the first time that a mass audience saw him, other than sort of going by in a motorcade.

The Vatican issued instructions for the standard altar: it was a kind of an Aztec pyramid that went up, had a level, went up, had another level, went up a third level, and you had the altar. You see these all over the world, because by design, the Vatican would say, "When you're building an altar, this is kind of the standard type." There were variations on whether the choir were on the first row, and then you had some more priests on the second, etc.

I think the Pope's out to be a prophetic figure. The road he laid out--if followed--would have transformed humanity, in a spiritual sense. He would come in, always, again per Vatican instructions, a procession through the crowd with a lot of priests and choirboys and stuff in front of him, then the bishops, all in red, right in front of him. There was a cardinal in front of him; he was at the end of the line. They would go up the pyramid, this procession, with him at the end, so you'd have people going up the pyramid ahead of him. He would stop at the bottom, gesture very small gestures, I mean just raising his hand or raising the crozier, while cheers from the people who could see him. Meanwhile, the procession is going. Their instructions are always, "Keep walking. No matter what happens, keep walking. Take your places."

So now, there's a little space between him and the last of the procession. He goes up to the top of the first level, turns to the crowd. All of sudden, for the first time, most of the crowd sees him. The typical gesture is the two-handed kind of welcome. That's all he had to do. By this time, you've got a half million people screaming. The rest of the procession is almost to the top of the altar. By the time he gets to the second altar, they're starting to settle in at the top, he's by himself. At that point, the whole crowd can see him. He stops, turns around again, and just raises a hand. And people are going nuts. By the time he gets to the top to where he's going to say Mass, he owns the crowd. A million people are in the palm of his hand, with no more than this much [raises his hand] of a gesture.

Traveling as a journalist, in the back of the back of the plane, you have insights and views of him that most of us do not. Have there been small revelatory moments that have suggested the man in ways that we don't see him?

Surely the peak of the traveling papacy--before he became ill---was when the Pope would come to the back of the plane where the reporters sat, usually on the way out and on the way back to Rome. Almost always on the way out. And he'd go down the aisles, usually an old Italian DC-10, usually the same one, and he would go down one aisle and back the other, greeting all of the reporters, and you had the opportunity to engage him in questions. It was the only time in his life that anybody asked him questions. I mean, nobody, if you're Pope, you don't have staff meetings where people say, "What are you going to do next, Pope?" You don't have appointments where people come and say, "Hey, you know, what's your plan on this?" I mean, everybody else is treating him with a great deal more dignity.

He clearly enjoyed it in the way a professor would enjoy sparring with undergraduates. We were clearly not in his league in any sense of the word, and I wouldn't pretend to be. He certainly knew that. But it was interesting the range of responses he would get. I have a much treasured photograph, because I made him laugh once. I made him laugh by asking if he had given a speech about Central America in which he denounced interference by outside powers when we were on the way back from this trip. And I said to him, "Holiness, when you gave this speech you denounced the outside powers. Which outside powers were you talking about?" And he just laughed. He just looked into my face, and sort of put his hand on my shoulder and you know, "That was so lame," was the body language ... He was just laughing at me, thinking that he would fall for that kind of bait.

There are other times, when people asked him harder questions. "Why didn't you address this issue? Why did you not meet with this group?" Or, questioning his motives, when he would turn red in the face and say, "You know, the Pope fulfilled his mission." and walk away.

The "legacy" question...

I think if you're going to try to judge John Paul's legacy, it has to be on his own terms, as a spiritual figure, as a religious leader. Not as a worldly man. Not in terms of his impact on culture or politics. But he is someone who clearly believed that this time in the world's history that there was an opportunity for great spiritual reawakening, for a new understanding for humanity in spiritual and moral terms. A time for the ascendancy of Catholicism, in the demise of Communism and Capitalism. It didn't happen.

Now, it may well have been that he was struggling against something that was overwhelming. Twentieth century culture with its materialism, its immorality, in his terms, --the force of ideology--were too great for him to overcome. But you know, had he done what he set out to do, he would have been another Saint Paul, a Luther, a man who transformed humanity's understanding of itself, transformed Christendom certainly.

Instead, I think he ends up a smaller figure than that--a Lincoln, a Thomas Jefferson, a St. Thomas More. A man who stood for great value and had a tremendous impact on the world, but maybe didn't change it as much as he believed possible, or as much as he believed was necessary. Now whether that was his failing or ours, is a much more difficult question.

...I think the pope has to be a prophetic figure, somebody who changed humanity. What he offered, what he suggested, the road laid out, if followed, would have transformed humanity in a spiritual sense. He was calling at the end of the twentieth century for a spiritual life to become the center of man's humanity, for all men, and certainly for all Catholics and all Christians to rediscover spirituality as the guiding force in their lives. If he had accomplished that, he would have been a millennial figure, not the man of the century. Somebody who produced much grander changes than that.

Instead he is a historical figure, he's somebody who lives within the period of time, who had a message that had impact, that changed events, that changed lives, but did not nearly reach the dimensions that were the ambitions that its author set out.

At the end of the day, when you look at this extraordinary life and you see all that he's accomplished, all the lives he's touched, the nations whose history he's changed, the way he's become such a powerful figure in our culture, in all of modern culture--among believers and not--taking all of that into account, you're left with one very disturbing and difficult question. On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimisstic figure--a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the twentieth century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way. A man so dark, so despairing, that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure, certainly.

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.

Can you describe a particular moment in which you remember the Pope preaching about birth control and what that says about him and his Catholic belief that defies common sense.

From one end of the Third World to another, from India across Africa, throughout Central and South America, over and over again, in situations where overpopulation was the most obvious problem, where the greatest challenge was population growth, where countries were struggling against the impossible task of keeping up with a population that was growing exponentially, the Pope had no qualms, no hesitation, saying over and over again, that the teaching of the Church was that birth control was wrong, and that people had to find other ways to solve these problems. And that was it. He suggested his remedies, such as they were, in very general terms. But he basically said, "This is not the answer to your problems, because it is evil. And you can't cure social problem by engaging in something simple." And this extended to the First World as well.

In 1987, when he came to the United States, he not only preached the standard sermons against abortion, and birth control and premarital sex. When the American bishops gathered in Los Angeles, he explicitly addressed what was then the one little gray area which the American pastors were trying to address, which is the use of birth control by married couples. At that time, it was a common practice in the American Church for pastors to say to married couples, "We understand the difficulty of not using birth control and having unpredicted births. This is a goal you can work towards. Accept the truth of the teaching, and promise that you're going to try and get there."

The Pope addressed this head on and said to the bishops, "It is a grave error to teach that." Which again, is a very harsh indictment in Church terms. So even in the First World, this little gray area where you're talking about married couples using birth control, people who have committed themselves to having a family that are trying to time it, he said, "There's going to be absolutely no compromise." And that is something that cost the Church in America. What it cost was that pastors basically ignored him.

Were you ever present when AIDS and the use of condoms came up?

The Pope's belief was that the use of condoms was evil and that preserving life did not justify it, because the circumstances in which the condoms were being used were sinful. And the answer was to avoid those moments of sin. He preached that for married couples, abstinence was the answer, not safe sex, when one of the partners was infected. It was an issue that he took a long time to address, and when he addressed it, he addressed it rather harshly.

I mean, the AIDS epidemic was well under way and was in its very early, frightening stages before the Pope addressed it. When he addressed it, he stood on the traditional moral ground of the Church, which was to say that the use of condoms was not acceptable to prevent the spread of AIDS, that instead people should not engage in that behavior, even in married couples where one of the partners was infected with the HIV virus. The Church's prescription was abstinence. In the face of tremendous suffering, particularly in Africa, he would not bend on this.

How has John Paul affected your faith?

It's somewhat ironic that during the five years that I covered the Pope, I went to Mass a lot, sometimes a couple times a day when I was traveling with him. But I didn't practice my faith during that time, and became a practicing Catholic again after I left Rome, and after I stopped covering the Pope

. It was very hard for me, and in a way, being close to him and being close to the Vatican and getting to know a lot about that institution, in some ways stifled the religious impulse in me. Part of it was the journalistic problem, I was always the writer, I was watching these things, and sometimes they gave me the willies when they were amazing events. Some of them were very spiritual events. I was probably a little bit too aware of the artifice. I was too aware of the institutional prerogatives what were portrayed as purely spiritual statements. I was too much aware of the human politics of the hierarchy. I became too aware of his ability to portray an uncompromising front, and yet to compromise when necessary to preserve the institution. I came to see the Pope and understand him as a human figure.

It's been much easier for me to practice my faith as a Roman Catholic at the little parish church, it turns out the same parish church that I attended as a child, where I now live nearby. The same place where I was baptized, same school I went to, now my children now go to, and in a much smaller, very localized context. I have a great appreciation of Mother Church and of the institutions and of a respect for the Holy Father, than I did when I was seeing him all the time.

Was there ever a woman who was in the "back of the bus," so to speak, who would challenge the Pope about his views about women?

It almost only came up in the United States. And there was on his first trip in Washington, as I recall, a woman who confronted him on this and as I recall, he sort of handled her graciously. It was not a big issue. It was settled. It wasn't much debated. It came up in talks with the Anglicans. I think it was in that context that I realized how important this was to the Pope, because one of his great goals was to foment Christian unity, basically to undo the Reformation. If he could have gotten the Protestants back, that would have been big.

There was a time when he was such a powerful figure, certainly the Anglicans were looking towards some way of moving closer to the Church, and in part, because of his spiritual draw. One of the big sticking points and one of the fatal sticking points, was the question of ordination of women. He basically decided that the Anglicans weren't worth it. They weren't worth even talking about it, let alone doing something about it, if that's what the price of moving forward on this was. And I'm simplifying a complicated situation, but in sort of raw political terms, it sort of came down to that. It wasn't worth it.

What's the driving motivation of all these trips? What does he want to accomplish and say in country to country?

The Pope took over the Church at a time when it was still recovering from the tumult of the Second Vatican Council--during a period when there had been a lot of questioning, a lot of movement, a lot of changes, a lot of debate. Things that are very uncharacteristic for a Roman Catholic Church, which those things don't happen but once every 1,000 years or so. There are a lot of people, when the Pope was elected, who thought that he was going to carry through all of that, that he was going to be the continuation of the period of change and debate and transformation. And in fact, there would be a renewal of it, in fact Paul VI, his predecessor, but one--the little pope only lasted 33 days--had sort of tried to stop the change, and maybe this new Polish pope-- he wasn't Italian, he tapped his feet and all that stuff--he was going to carry through with the change.

It became clear, after a fairly short amount of time for people who were watching very closely, that quite to the contrary, what he was trying to do was bring this period of change and debate and tumult safely to an end, basically bring about a soft landing.

The travels were an essential part of that strategy. The Pope said over and over again that the Church's problems stemmed from lack of clarity about its teaching. Not that the teachings were a problem, but the people who were bringing it to the public were not clear or allowed debate, or were saying on the one hand but on the other, when in fact there was only one true thought. The Pope traveled to bring clarity to the church. He traveled to say, "This is the message, and you're hearing it from the Pope, face-to-face. Let there be no doubt about what the true teaching of the Church is." That was a very important mission.

I also believe that, not in any arrogant way, the Pope saw himself as somebody who could stimulate spiritual activity. I think he understood that his presence could excite people in a religious way and could stimulate that part of human beings as a mass phenomenon. I think he saw that as a gift that he had, I mean, a gift literally from God, a mission that he had. And a mission that he had to fulfill, again, in not in any sort of arrogant way that he thought, "Well, I can do this to people." It was his mission to do that.

So his way of doing it was to go out, and to use television, and to use his presence to bring about clarity, and to bring about spiritual renewal, that uplift, the reattention to the spiritual part of life. And it's exceptionally successful. Look at his last trips. There's no charisma there any more, this very old man who slurs his words. Yet, his mere presence drives people, excites people. He understood, I think, particularly in the latter part of his pontificate, that there was a yearning, that there was a vacuum there, both in the East and the West equally. And the people wanted spiritual leadership. They wanted, if not leadership, simply a spiritual presence. They wanted an occasion to pray and to believe, and he knew that by spending 48 hours in St. Louis, and just going through the motions, he could bring that to people.

How much do you think his messages "stick" to people?

That's very hard to stay. I mean, it sticks to believers. He's proven, unexpectedly, to excite the young. I don't think he's winning huge numbers of converts, but that's very hard to say. Unfortunately, I think he would admit, because there's a pessimistic streak in a lot of his later writings, that he didn't nearly succeed in making things stick as much as he wanted to.

In the most personal level for you, how has he disappointed you the most?

...You have to wonder what might have happened, if John Paul had decided to lead liberation theology, rather than to stifle it. If he had decided to take it forward, saying, "All right, there may be some parts of this I don't agree with, but I'm going to move forward with the central thrust of saying that, 'The Church must be an engine for social change in Latin America.'"

On the Catholic continent, he could have changed very profound social structures. He could have, instead of a blossoming economy very much modeled on the United States, which we have now, a straightforward, unregulated market economy, there was the opportunity, I believe, for something else, for the Third Way, which even he talked about at times, which was neither capitalist or communist, but was based on spiritual values. And if those spiritual values had translated into a strategy, a dedication to the idea that the poor had to be lifted up in their material existence as well as their spiritual existence, he would have changed the continent. He could have forced changes in economic structures that now are becoming more rigid, rather than less so.

..It's partly because I spent part of my childhood in Latin America, and having had very vivid, painful memories of poverty--seen, not experienced. I merely observed it, I never lived in poverty in Latin America. My family came from probably what you could consider the oligarchy in Ecuador.

But having seen that suffering and seen a continent that has looked for answers, where people have fought and died in a number of wars, where people chased leftist ideologies, where you've had efforts at very fairly brutal forms of capitalism as well. To me, in a place where the Catholic Church is the single most powerful institution, and in the past, just exercised its power in a worldly way, to me the real bitter disappointment was that he didn't say, "I cast myself with the poor. That's where I belong, that's where the Church will exercise its power."

And now on this trip in 1999 in Mexico, the great center of the Americas, the final finding was that the Church has ignored the rich because it has spent too much time preoccupied with the poor and that the rich are leaving Latin America. Those are his boys who wrote that document. Those are the bishops that he appointed, who said, "The message of the Church is that we have to pay more attention to rich people, because they're losing their belief in God." That's his legacy in Latin America. I find that extradorinary. And it's a huge disappointment. And it didn't have to be that way.

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