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.
This is another form of the poverty of the possible, the thinness of the choices and narratives that seem available at any particular time. Every step John Paul II took in those early years was a denial that our options were as limited as they appeared--in the political life of the world, in the religious life of the Church, and in the intellectual life of our cultures. For the impoverished imagination of the time, he seemed both far behind and far ahead of the rest of the world. But he never saw his medievalism as a reactionary antimodernism, or his modernism as an enlightened anti-medievalism. Christianity always seemed to him simultaneously an ancient faith and the newest hope for the world. He prayed constantly that he would live long enough to see the Jubilee of 2000, for he thought he was called to shepherd humankind into the third millennium that he claimed would be a "springtime of evangelization."
Toward the end of his pontificate, the tyranny of available options may have begun to close in on him. Certainly, in the first days after his death on April 2, the media have proved incapable of picturing him in any way other than caught in the clash of accepted political categories. John Paul II was a voice for peace--but he hated abortion! He was a radical critic of materialism--but he rejected women's ordination! He was one of the architects of the great opening of the Church at the Second Vatican Council--but he disciplined heterodox Catholic theologians!
The New York Times oddly and disturbingly used the pope's death as an occasion to editorialize in favor of euthanasia: "Terri Schiavo was a stark contrast to the passing of this pontiff, whose own mind was keenly aware of the gradual failure of his body. The pope would certainly never have wanted his own end to be a lesson in the transcendent importance of allowing humans to choose their own manner of death. But to some of us, that was the exact message of his dignified departure." It's hard to imagine a more egregious use of the word "transcendent" or a more grotesque inversion of the legacy of a man who always insisted that life wasn't a choice but a gift. In truth, however, the Times was merely one among many publications that saw the pope only through the lens of current social politics. In all the thousands of obituaries that have appeared in the past week, hardly one failed to speak of the pope's "contradictions" somewhere along the way.
There's a reason. John Paul II's work in the Church must seem a hodgepodge when explained with the old narrative of Vatican II as entirely a struggle between liberal reformers and conservative traditionalists. His theology of the body, laid out in four years of addresses he began in 1979, must appear a mess when encountered with the view that libertines and reactionaries divide between them the only possible ways to think about human sexuality. And his politics of rightly ordered freedom must be unintelligible in a world that thinks itself limited to the alternatives of tyranny and radical license.
FOR THE MAN HIMSELF, there was no contradiction at all, and he spent his pontificate trying to create new possibilities for history. You can see it perhaps most clearly in the defeat of communism--when he showed his ability to open doors where the rest of the world saw only walls.
After an unscheduled discussion during the 1979 papal tour of the United States, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski joked that when he met with President Carter, he had the impression of speaking to a religious leader, and when he met with John Paul II, he felt he was talking to a world statesman. It was a joke with a bite. Of all American presidents, Jimmy Carter may have been the one most constrained by his thin conception of the available options, and all he could do was complain--in that failing voice of the would-be prophet he always seemed to end up using--that things ought to be different than they seemed to be.
John Paul II made them different. There's a temptation to overestimate the pope's role in the demise of Soviet communism. The labor unions, the anti-Stalinist intellectuals, and the churches all contributed enormously. The United States' long resistance during the Cold War, through presidents from Truman to Reagan, held Soviet expansion at bay while the Marxist economies ground toward their collapse: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" ran a factory workers' joke at the time in the Russian satellites behind the Iron Curtain.
And yet, however weak the Communist edifice may have been in actuality, it still seemed formidable, and the pope was at the center of the cyclone that blew it down. The KGB's Yuri Andropov foresaw what John Paul II would be, warning the Politburo in Moscow of impending disaster in the first months after the Polish cardinal became pope. Figures from Mikhail Gorbachev to Henry Kissinger have looked back on their careers and judged that the nonviolent dissolution of the Communist dictatorships would not have happened without John Paul II.
"How many divisions has the pope?" Stalin famously sneered. As it happens, with John Paul II, we have an answer. At the end of 1980, worried by the Polish government's inability to control the independent labor union Solidarity, the Russians prepared an invasion "to save socialist Poland." Fifteen divisions--twelve Soviet, two Czech, and one East German--were to cross the border in an initial attack, with nine more Soviet divisions following the next day. On December 7, Brzezinski called from the White House to tell John Paul II what American satellite photos showed about troop movements along the Polish border, and on December 16 the pope wrote Leonid Brezhnev a stern letter, invoking against the Soviets the guarantees of sovereignty that the Soviets themselves had inserted in the Helsinki Final Act (as a way, they thought, of ensuring the Communists' permanent domination of Eastern Europe). Already caught in the Afghanistan debacle and fearing an even greater loss of international prestige and good will, Brezhnev ordered the troops home. Twenty-four divisions, and John Paul II faced them down.
When President Carter urged Americans in 1977 to overcome their "inordinate fear of communism," he clearly thought the only path out of the Cold War was agreement to the continuing existence of Communist regimes. This was the lie John Paul II was never willing to tell. It remains a mystery what the organizers of the annual "World Day of Peace" were hoping for when they asked the pope to contribute a reflection in 1982, but what they got from the apostle of peace was a letter denouncing the "false peace" of totalitarianism. In the end, the path out of the Cold War was neither Henry Kissinger's hard realpolitik nor Jimmy Carter's soft détente. It was instead John Paul II's insistence that communism could not survive among a people who had heard--and learned to speak--the truth about human beings' freedom, dignity, and absolute moral worth.
Think of the number of regimes based on lies that gave way without violent revolution during his pontificate. The flowering of democracy was unprecedented, and he seemed always to be present as it bloomed. There was Brazil, where the ruling colonels allowed the free elections that replaced them. There was the Philippines, where Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled from marchers in the street. There were Nicaragua, and Chile, and Paraguay, and Mexico. And looming over them all was the impending disintegration of the Soviet empire in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia--on and on, people after people who learned from the pope a new possibility for history, born from an ability to hear and speak the truth about the regimes under which they lived.
For John Paul II, the possibility of political truth was a philosophically obvious fact, demanded by the theory of personalism he developed as he used the modern phenomenology of Edmund Husserl to move intellectually beyond the dry versions of neo-Thomistic philosophy he had studied in seminary. It was a theological fact, as well, derived from--and pointing back toward--the awareness that human beings are created in the image of their free Creator. It was even a historical fact, learned during the long humiliation of Poland first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet Russia while he was young. And it became, in the end, a mystical fact for John Paul II, joined--through Mary and the secrets of Fatima--to God's direct providence in history.
The mystical unity begins, for the pope, in what the papal biographer George Weigel calls the "shadowlands." Yuri Andropov's grim predictions about the impact of the Polish pope did not fall on deaf ears. On November 13, 1979, the Central Committee in Moscow approved a KGB plan entitled "Decision to Work Against the Policies of the Vatican in Relation with Socialist States." Much of the document dealt with issuing anti-Catholic "propaganda" in the Soviet bloc and the use of "special channels" in the West to spread disinformation about the pope. But another section ordered the KGB to "improve the quality of the struggle" against the Vatican.
What this meant became completely clear only with evidence released just last month. Elements of the Soviet security forces, working through the Bulgarian secret service, made contact with a Turkish assassin named Mehmet Ali Agca and aimed him at the pope. And on May 13, 1981, Agca shot John Paul II in St. Peter's Square with a Browning 9-mm semiautomatic pistol, striking him in the belly to perforate his colon and small intestine multiple times. In the pope's last book, Memory and Identity--a collection of philosophical conversations that appeared in Italy this February--he shows that he always knew the origin of Agca's attempt on his life: "Someone else masterminded it and someone else commissioned it." The assassination attempt was a "last convulsion" of communism, trying to reverse the historical tide that had turned against it.
But it was also something more. "One hand fired, and another guided the bullet," he tried to explain after he left the hospital. On May 13, 1991, Pope John Paul II traveled to Portugal and placed the bullet with which he had been shot ten years before in the crown of the statue of Mary at the site of her original apparitions at Fatima. It wasn't till 2000 that the Vatican offered an explanation--and, along the way, revealed what had been called "the third secret of Fatima," a prophesy about a pope gunned down, hidden since it was given by the Blessed Virgin to three Portuguese children on July 13, 1917.
For John Paul II, the pieces all came together: the endless rosaries prayed since 1917 for the "conversion of Godless Russia" as the Blessed Virgin had asked, the "secret" vision of a shot pope she had further revealed at Fatima, the thirteens repeated in the dates, the special devotion to Mary that he marked with the large "M" on his coat of arms--and the truth of human freedom, asserted against the Communist lie.
He had sophisticated philosophical, theological, and historical reasons to see chances for political change where even the good leaders of his time saw only the poverty of the possible. He had poetic and aesthetic reasons, as well, to suppose it all somehow made sense: If "the word did not convert, blood will convert," he said of martyrdom in "Stanislaw," the last poem he wrote before becoming pope. But we cannot understand the man--we cannot grasp how, for him, history was always open to new possibilities--unless we also understand that it was, most of all, a mystical truth: the unity of things seen and unseen, the coherence of the spirit and the flesh.
"THE INTELLECT OF MAN is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work," William Butler Yeats once sadly observed. But this was yet another thinness of possibility--that we can make either our lives or our works beautiful and whole, but not both--which John Paul II refused to admit.
In his magisterial biography Witness to Hope (first published in 1999, and soon to appear in a third and updated edition that carries the story through the pope's death), George Weigel reports innumerable telling facts about the life of Karol Wojtyla before he became John Paul II at age 58, the youngest pope in more than a hundred years. His mother died when he was 8, for instance--and then his only brother when he was 12, and his father eight years later: "At the age of 20," he would look back to say, "I had already lost all the people I loved."
But though Weigel reports such facts and the pope's own occasional reflections upon them, he hardly ever draws a psychological conclusion--and he never offers a picture of what Wojtyla's subjective life was like or makes a guess about the interior monologue of his emotional life. On a first reading, this resolute refusal to psychologize may seem odd: People are their psyches, after all. We read biographies to understand their subjects, which we do only as we learn who they are and the psychological causes that shaped them into those particular people.
Indeed, John Paul II himself told Weigel in a 1996 interview, "They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside." To the general reader of biographies, there is something absurd when Weigel quotes this line--and immediately goes on to describe the "inside" of Karol Wojtyla by mentioning the history of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, the philosophical necessity for grounding humanism and freedom in the truth about human existence, and the theological centrality of the virtue of hope.
And yet, over the last few years--as the world watched John Paul II teach, even with his death, one last lesson about the shape of human life--it has become clear that Weigel was right to think of the pope in this way. We have millions of words from the man: the 14 major encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters; the popular books like Crossing the Threshold of Hope, scribbled on yellow pads during long plane flights; the scholarly works he wrote as a young theologian; the thousands of prayers and exhortations he delivered during the innumerable audiences he tirelessly gave as pope. And in all those words, there is hardly a hint of what a psychologist would demand: a persona that somehow stands apart from the history through which he lived and the intellectual growth he experienced.
It is not that he was a private person, in the usual way we speak of such people: refusing to discuss themselves and burying their psyches in their public work. It is, rather, that the center of the man--the focal point of his unified life--was the narrative arc of his story: what he was and how he got that way.
The closest John Paul II came to explaining himself may have been Roman Triptych: Meditations, a collection of three poems written during the 2003 papal trip to Poland, which he foresaw would be his last visit home. The only new poetry the pope published during his pontificate, the book is not first-class verse. But it remains fascinating autobiography, for each poem of the triptych shows a man considering human existence in one of its apparently divided aspects: as the life of the artist, as the life of the intellectual, and as the life of the believer. And through all three of the linked poems, the author seeks to express the unity he could always sense was drawing it all together.
It was a unity that derives, finally, from God's providential purpose in history. But history and Karol Wojtyla's biography grew together, more and more as the years went by, and the divine presence he felt in history joined the divine presence he could feel in the arc of his life. The man was his story--and in that story, he could seek perfection of both the life and the work.
CONSIDER JUST ONE SCENE from his early life. When the Nazis began their occupation of Poland in 1939, they were determined to do more than conquer the country. "A major goal of our plan is to finish off as speedily as possible all troublemaking politicians, priests, and leaders who fall into our hands," the German governor, Hans Frank, wrote to his subordinates from the office he established in Krakow's old royal residence, Wawel Castle. "I openly admit that some thousands of so-called important Poles will have to pay with their lives, but . . . every vestige of Polish culture is to be eliminated."
The Nazis' destruction of Poland's Jews was more deliberate and systematic than their slaughter of Poland's Catholics, but the unified goal was clear from the beginning: By the time he was done overseeing the murder of thousands of priests and hundreds of college professors, and the deaths of millions of ordinary citizens along the way, Frank boasted, "There will never again be a Poland."
Among the schemes for the elimination of Polish culture was the closing of all secondary schools and universities--including seminaries. When the 22-year-old Karol Wojtyla entered studies for the priesthood in 1942, the entire Catholic educational system was underground and illegal. The first years of his priestly formation were snatched in secret, usually at night and always while waiting for death to find him as it found so many others in Poland.
When Frank closed the seminary in Krakow, up the hill near Wawel Castle, the German S.S. took over the building and used it for the next five years as an administrative headquarters. And when the Nazis abandoned Krakow on January 17, 1945, as the Red Army's 1st Ukrainian Front closed in on the city, the archbishop--Adam Stefan Sapieha, the "uncrowned king of Poland" who had dared to mock Frank openly--quickly moved to reclaim the seminary before the Russians seized it.
It turned out that, by the end of the war, the S.S. had begun using the building as a makeshift jail, and Sapieha found the seminary with its roof collapsed, its windows shattered, and its rooms scarred from the open fires the inmates had built to keep from freezing. Worst of all was the failed plumbing, and in the hurry to save the building, young Wojtyla and another seminarian were sent in with trowels to clear out the cold, hard feces left by the prisoners.
Picture, for a moment, that scene: the brilliant 24-year-old--already known among his contemporaries as an actor and a playwright, already clearly destined for great things, already arrived at the fullness of his intellectual powers--chipping away for days in rooms full of frozen excrement.
And contrast it with another scene, 34 years later, when Karol Wojtyla made his first trip to Communist Poland as Pope John Paul II. He arrived on June 2, 1979, and by the time he left eight days later, 13 million Poles--more than one-third of the country's population--had seen him in person as he traveled from Warsaw, to Gniezno, to the shrine at Czestochowa, and ended in Krakow. Nearly everyone else in the nation saw him on television or heard him on the radio. The government was frightened to a hair trigger, and outside observers all had the sense that the Communist regime was doomed, one way or another, from the first moment the pope knelt down and kissed his native soil.
The enormous crowds could sense it, too. On the night of Friday, June 8, tens of thousands of young people gathered outside St. Michael's Church in Krakow for a promised "youth meeting" with the pope. "Sto lat! Sto lat!" they shouted over and over: "Live for a hundred years!" Abandoning his prepared speech, John Paul II joked with them--"How can the pope live to be a hundred when you shout him down?"--in an effort to calm the situation. But by 10:30 the emotions of the young crowd had reached a fever pitch.
The temptation for demagoguery must have been enormous: tens of thousands of young Poles--children, really--waving crosses above their heads, chanting in their ecstatic madness for this man to lead them, hungry for martyrdom, ready to trample down the government troops that waited nervously to meet them. A single hint, a single gesture, and the city could have been his--the whole of Poland, perhaps, for the emotion was electric across the country. But all that blood would have been his, too, and he knew the time was not yet right. "It's late, my friends. Let's go home quietly," was all he said, and inside the car that carried him away, John Paul II wept and wept, covering his face with his hands.
For anyone else, these two scenes would stand in contradiction: Once this man was so powerless that he was forced in the middle of a frozen January to clean open rooms that had been used as toilets, but later he was so powerful that thousands of people would have gladly died if he had but lifted his hand. For Karol Wojtyla, however, there seemed no contradiction at all. They were both demanded by the vocation to which God had called him. They were both involved with service and obedience. They were both the next thing that needed to be done.
THIS IS THE ONLY WAY to make sense of John Paul II. He spent his life refusing the poverty of the possible, the worldly notion that our choices and explanations are limited to contemporary political categories--and all the apparent contradictions in his thought melt away when we realize he was perceiving options that no one else could see.
With his 1991 encyclical on democratic freedom and economics, Centesimus Annus, he issued what is by any objective measure the most pro-Western--pro-American, for that matter--document ever to come from Rome. And then, with the denunciations of the "culture of death" in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he issued Rome's most anti-Western and anti-American document. It looks like an impossible combination, until we remember that between them came the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor--"The Splendor of Truth," joined with Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae as the three-part message that formed the central theological achievement of his pontificate. The unity of truth--the only sustainable ground for a healthy society--is what lets us grasp both the rightness of democracy and the murderousness of abortion.
That's not to say his pontificate was an unbroken string of successes. He felt the Christian schism deeply, but his many overtures to the Eastern Orthodox Churches were mostly unrequited, and the healing of Christianity is still far away. He never understood the Middle East with the same clarity that he grasped Eastern Europe, and after the fall of Soviet communism he didn't have the same direct impact on world history. When he opposed the first Gulf War in 1991--and allowed Iraq's murderous deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, to pay a state visit to Rome and Assisi before the second Gulf War in 2003--he seemed to have become locked into a single model for democratic reform, as though Saddam Hussein could be overcome with the same nonviolent, soft-power techniques that had worked in Catholic countries from Poland to the Philippines.
Similarly, he often appeared to have greater success evangelizing the rest of the world than he did evangelizing his own Church. The orthodoxy of the new Catechism he issued in the 1990s and the example of his personal spirituality stopped the slide of post-Vatican II Catholicism into a theological simulacrum of liberal Protestantism. His unique connection to young people--manifested at the huge outpourings for World Youth Day events--created a new generation of "John Paul II Catholics" among young people who have never known another pope. But on the older generations formed before his pontificate, particularly in America and Western Europe, he found little purchase. The liberal Catholic establishment never forgave him for either his failures or his successes, and they blamed him when the American priest scandals became public in 2002--though the priests involved were of the generation formed before John Paul II became pope.
But along the way, he refused to falter. He seems never to have been frightened of anything in his life, and he expected everyone else to share his confident courage: "Be not afraid," he began his pontificate by echoing from the gospel. The 1981 bullet wound slowed him down a little, a 1994 fall in his bath slowed him more, and by the time he reached his 82nd birthday in 2002, he was showing the signs of his impending death. But even at the end he was "a body pulled by a soul" to remain active, as the Vatican official Joaquin Navarro-Valls put it, and his constant motion throughout his life seems breathtaking.
In the 27 years of his pontificate he was seen in the flesh more often than anyone else in history--by over 150 million people, according to one estimate. He traveled to more than 130 countries, created 232 cardinals, and never slowed in the Vatican's endless schedule of audiences, consistories, synods, and meetings. He named 482 saints and beatified another 1,338 people, more than all his predecessors, in his confident belief that the possibility of sanctity was still alive in the world. He produced the first universal Catechism since Vatican II, revised canon law, reorganized the Curia, and made huge advances in Jewish-Christian and Catholic-Protestant relations.
That set of features--his complete courage and his boundless energy--gave him enormous freedom, particularly when combined with his certain conviction that there must exist a way to living in truth no matter how thin the merely possible seemed. He was, in fact, the freest man in the twentieth century. As a measure of his greatness, think of him this way: He could have been a Napoleon. He could have been a Lenin. Instead, he was the vicar of Christ, the heir of St. Peter, steward of a gospel recorded long ago.
History labors down its worn tracks, and the poverty of human possibilities leaves us few choices. Or so it often seems.
But not always. Not while we remember that living in truth is always possible. Not while we remind ourselves of the message of hope preached ceaselessly by Karol Wojtyla. Not while we recall John Paul the Great.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and editor of First Things.