The Magazine

John Paul the Great

From the April 18, 2005 issue: Statesman and prophet, he overcame the poverty of the possible.

Apr 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 29 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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HISTORY LABORS--A WORN machine, sick with torsion, ill-meshed--and every repair of an old fault ruptures something new. Or so it seems, much of the time. Our historical choices are limited, constrained by the poverty of what appears possible at any given moment. To be a good leader is, for most figures who walk the world's stage, merely to pick the best among the available options--to push back where one can, to hold on to the good that remains, to resist a little the stream of history as it seems to flow toward its cataract.

For the past decade and a half, John Paul II was a good leader. He had his failures: losing the fight for recognition of Christianity in the European constitution, watching the democratic energy he generated during his 1998 visit to Cuba dissipate without much apparent damage to Castro's dictatorship, seeing his efforts to influence China's anti-religious regime peter out. But he had his successes as well: convincing even his bitterest opponents in the Church to join in at least the verbal rejection of abortion, regularizing Vatican relations with Israel to allow his millennial visit to the Holy Land, inspiring the defeat of the Mafia in Sicily.

With the drama of his final illness and death, he offered a lesson about the fullness, the arc, of human life. With the prophetic voice he used in his later writings, he pointed to spiritual possibilities that were being closed by what he once called the "disease of superficiality." Always he was present, one of the world's conspicuous figures, pushing on history where he could, guiding the Church as much as it would be guided, choosing the best among the available options--doing all that a good leader should.

But before that--for over a decade at the beginning of his pontificate, from his installation as pope in 1978 through the final collapse of Soviet communism in 1991--John Paul II was something more, something different, something beyond mere possibility. He wasn't simply a good leader. He was inspired, and he seemed to walk through walls.

Certain images remain indelibly fixed--the skeptical Roman crowd, for instance, falling in love with the new Polish pope in the first seconds of his pontificate as he gave his lopsided smile and called out, not in Latin, but Italian, from the papal balcony: "I don't know if I can make myself clear in your . . . our Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me." He had a perfect sense of timing, as the actor John Gielgud observed after watching him, and in the whirlwind of those early years he seemed incapable of doing anything that wasn't news: skiing, mountain-climbing, gathering crowds of millions to pray with him everywhere from Poland to Australia, performing the marriage of a Roman street-sweeper's daughter because she'd had the pluck to ask him--snapping the Lilliputian threads of courtly precedent and royal decorum with which the Vatican curia traditionally tied down popes as though he didn't even notice.

The "postmodern pope," American magazines dubbed him, caught up in the media circus of his superstar status, the John Paul II magical mystery tour that swept across the globe through the 1980s. Certainly he had, all his life, the elements of stardom--the whole package of good looks, and charm, and curiosity, and intelligence, and physical presence, and, especially, an obvious and easily triggered sort of joy: the ability to please and the ability to be pleased that combine to make a man seem radiantly alive.

As a young priest, he was a polished, careful subordinate, clearly destined for high office in the Church--but he was also a recognized minor poet during a period when Polish poetry was the most flourishing in the world. As archbishop of Krakow, he was a full-time political player in the complex dance of Soviet-dominated Poland--but he was also an important philosophical interpreter of Thomistic metaphysics and Husserlian phenomenology, teaching courses at the Catholic University of Lublin, the only non-state university in the Communist world. As pope, he was a mystic who spent hours a day in solitary prayer--but he was also a natural for television. He seemed perfectly at home receiving the stately bows of ambassadors in the Clementine throne room--but when thousands of teenagers in Madison Square Garden chanted at him, "John Paul II, we love you," he was equally comfortable winning their hearts by shouting back: "Woo-hoo-woo, John Paul II, he loves you!"

And yet, to call all this "postmodern"--to imagine these elements are simple contradictions, absurdly juxtaposed in a characteristically postmodern way--is to believe something about John Paul II that he himself never did. It is to imagine that helicopters are ridiculous beside devotion to the Blessed Virgin, or that prayer gainsays philosophy, or that faith ought not to go with modern times.