John Paul II, The Mystical Pope
by Gaither Stewart
The moment John Paul II died in his Vatican apartment on Saturday, April 2, 2005, in the silence of one hundred thousand persons on vigil on the great piazza below, he was already no longer John Paul but had again become, Karol Wojtyla, the Cardinal and workingman from Poland. Such is the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church—all powerful king in life, again a simple man in death.
Like all religious believers Karol Wojtyla was a mystic. By definition mystics are infused with their relationship with the mysteries of the spirit and with a tendency toward divinity by means of supra - rational impulses. Mystics are animated by high ideals, spiritual and pure. They aspire to overcome and surpass the natural limits of the finite human spirit, baring it of all that is personal and filling it with God.
One can often identify mystics by the look in their eyes. Our first reading on people is in their eyes. Eyes most certainly distinguish people. The person with dull, unseeing eyes is not to be compared with a person with a piercing glance, and a penetrating curious look. I am struck each time I see the glassy but calculating look in the eyes of many world political leaders. But they, of course, are not mystics.
There is a fine line, a dangerous line, between the look in the eyes of the mystic and the fanatic. The former easily blurs and merges into the latter. For example, Jeanne d’Arc or Giordano Bruno or Jesus Christ—mystics or fanatics?
As John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla had the look in his eyes of the mystic he was. But not a fanatic. The secrets revealed by the three shepherds who claimed to have seen apparitions of the Holy Mother in Fatima in Portugal thus giving birth to the cult of Our Lady of Fatima played a major role in the unfolding of the Pope’s mysticism. The interpretations of two of the secret revelations were realized in Karol Wojtyla’s early life: the rise of Nazism in the West and Communism in the East. The third secret was the thwarting of the assassination attempt on the life of a Pope—as it turned out, on his own life that day in 1981 when he was shot on Saint Peter’s Square in Rome.
The professional Turkish assassin of the Fascist Gray Wolves shot at him point blank from close range. He couldn’t miss the shot of his life. The man who killed the Pope! But that day Our Lady of Fatima, the Madonna of the Rosario, stepped in. She deflected the marksman’s bullet that saved his life.
Did Pope John Paul lie when he revealed that secret of the Lady of Fatima? Was he just a calculating, power - crazed leader of a church without an army trying to build a myth?
If you had eyes to see John Paul’s eyes looking into you, you knew he was not lying, he didn’t have to lie: he was a mystic. And he believed. In his Polish heart he might have believed the arm of Moscow held that pistol too, but as Pope John Paul he also believed it was God saying he didn’t want to take him that day—he still had a mission to fulfil.
In these days of rampant mysticism in Rome, the newspaper and TV interview with the Pope’s would - be assassin Ali Agca in his prison cell in Istanbul must ring ridiculous to the dull - eyed, to the cynics, to calculating politicians. Agca speaks of assistance from inside the Vatican, and cynics sneer. Agca’s words about the hand of the Bulgarian secret police and instigation by the KGB in Moscow is more to their liking. Agca’s relation of events goes down well—he arrived in Rome by plane from Zurich, got his weapon, went to Saint Peter’s Square where the Pope was meeting the gathered masses, shot him at close range, was caught and imprisoned.
Today, twenty - four years later, an older and fanatical Ali Agca, claims he too believes that another arm, an invisible arm, deflected his bullet. Again, cynics sneer and call him a charlatan.
That is the third secret of Fatima.
The mysticism of the Madonna of Fatima invaded Pope John Paul’s life. The Madonna of Fatima promised those who respect devotion on the first Saturday of each month that she will come for them at their death and carry them to heaven. Pope John Paul instituted life long devotion to the Madonna on the first Saturday of every month … and, he then died precisely on the first Saturday of the month. Now the Madonna could come for him.
Miracle! staunch Polish Catholics from Krakau to Warsaw immediately proclaimed. For them as for most Catholics this mystical Pope John Paul II, Karol the Great, is already a saint.
As a journalist in Rome during the entire twenty - six year papacy of John Paul II, I was largely in disaccord with his contradictory policies. The Pope who came out of the cold of Communist Poland to revolutionize a stagnant World Church used the most up - to - date weapons of communications to combat the constant secularisation of the world of religion. Yet, his very duality of attachment to tradition and fascination with the new stood in his way. Only his gigantic figure and his showmanship and powerful leadership made possible his simultaneous defence of the Church tradition of which he was part and the innovation to which he aspired. At times he was obligated to defend simultaneously the gods of war and the gods of compassion, to lead the battle against Communism and the criticism of Capitalism, to hold to the old but project the new, to use media modernity to oppose antiquated Church ideas on abortion, divorce, artificial insemination, staminal cell research, gay marriage and the celibacy of the clergy.
Yet, John Paul’s maturing anti - war polices both allied him with world pacifists and infuriated American presidents: “War is never a fatality,” he proclaimed in his peace crusade. “War is a defeat for humanity.”
History already credits Pope John Paul, the Pole Karol Wojtyla, with a major role in bringing down Communism in East Europe. His support to Solidarnosc in Poland and the underground churches of East Europe was grandiose; his message to the people of Poland, people of Czechoslovakia, meant rise up against your godless masters.
But precisely here within his great victory emerged one of the great contradictions of his papacy: while he fostered rebellion against governments in East Europe, in Latin America he clashed openly with the revolutionary “liberation theology” sweeping across the continent in defence of the poor against reactionary governments. Though the new theology was supported by revolutionary priests and Jesuits adopting the message of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and siding openly with armed rebels in Nicaragua and Guatemala, in Costa Rica and Salvador, it never gained the support of John Paul II, the anti - Communist orphan from Poland. He could not walk that path. He fought it tooth and nail. From Rome his messages went out to Latin Americans: obey your governments.
But then, again, the hard line pacifist in him was soon to emerge. Pacifist in the First Gulf War in 1991, in the second in 2002, Pope John Paul castigated Bush’s America and attacked the theory of preventive war as a permanent destabilizing factor outside all framework of international law and the institutions of peace.
Pope John Paul thus became the great antagonist of American imperialism and of savage Capitalism with its laws of consumerism, hedonism, and unemployment —“Unemployment creates in its victims a serious condition of margination. Money must not be one’s major concern since it has the power to enslave men’s souls.”
Finally, last year Pope John Paul made his now famous pronouncement concerning the evils of our times: Nazism was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil, with the emphasis on “necessary.” His words were interpreted to mean that Socialism is necessary to combat unlimited and uncontrolled Capitalism.
Confessing an enormous commotion, the brilliant leader and spokesman of Italy’s Communist Refoundation Party, Fausto Bertinotti, gave the highest accolades to the deceased Pope—“a great Pope whose presence marked the end of last century and the beginning of another history. Also for a person of different views of men and the world and who did not share important aspects of Wojtyla’s papacy, the legacy of the universal value of his powerful denunciation of the evils of capitalist modernization and his message of peace, the rejection of war, and the necessity of humanity and brotherhood will remain. On a secular gravestone I would write of him Prophet of Peace.”
The Communist leader and the Polish Pope were on the same wavelength in their convictions regarding world evils, social injustice, the oppression of the poor by the rich and total aversion to war.
This man, Karol the Great he is being called in these days, believed in miracles. In a sense he was himself a miracle. Widely recognized as a “great” Pope, a great man, he however could have done more to change the Church in the direction his successors will soon be obligated to do: more modern views on sexuality and celibacy will be inevitable if only to save the Church from internal collapse as wave after wave of homosexual or paedophile, guilt - ridden priests - sinners are forced to abandon the Church. The Church will have to adopt new forms of parenthood, new ideas on divorce, science and the meaning of life.
While for the funeral rites two million pilgrims and two hundred chiefs of state and their entourages including three American presidents descended on Rome in the early cool and sunny April days, world media were omnipresent, offices and schools closed, millions of persons stood in line day and night to pay last respects to their Pope, and tens of thousands of policemen patrolled an uncontrollable city, I have pondered the question of what constitutes a “great man.” Both President George Bush and Italian Communist leader Bertinotti, Israelis and Palestinians, Chinese and Fidel Castro recognize Pope John Paul II - Karol Wojtyla, as a “great man.”
Weighing as well as I can the Pope’s intentions, his acts, his accomplishments, his integrity, I am consciously biased, partial, intolerant in my considerations. I cannot classify as “great” the absolute evil men like Hitler or Stalin, who merely had a great role in history. On the other hand, a “great man” in my opinion is one whose greatness one recognizes even though one disagrees with him as I did with Pope John Paul. Great, in the things he did accomplish, great in his defence of peace and rejection of evil, his opposition to exploitation of man by man, great in his total integrity and constancy and great in his capacity to grow and become a better man as time passed during his long reign.
As most journalists in Rome I had several occasions to meet Pope John Paul. Two such stand out: once invited together with foreign journalists and their wives and children to the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the Roman hills and again in the Foreign Press Club in Rome. In the great gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope made a long circular passage among the journalists, chatting separately with each couple for a couple minutes, charming, relaxed, personal, mundane. At the press club, after his packed press, I bumped into him face to face in a narrow corridor around the bathrooms. As if he just happened to be passing through or was looking for the toilet himself, he stuck out his hand, said “buon giorno” and a few words about being there.
Each time I was most impressed with his seeing eyes. He looked and saw into me, not past me, not a dull vague look, but an aware look as if he were looking to see who I really was. I remember that look.
Now in recent times I have begun to think of this contradictory man of total dedication to the Church as a Cathar, a pure one. If he had lived in the Middle Ages he too might have been one of the Cathar heretics who professed a dualist doctrine of life divided by good and evil and who preached an absolute purity of life.
© 2005 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books and, in print versions, by Wind River Press.