Old Man and the See
The last years of a historic papacy.
Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
After Wojtyla was made bishop in 1958, the SB took an ever-increasing interest in him. Given the codename PEDAGOG, he was put under constant surveillance, his residences bugged and monitored. In dossiers, the police determined that Wojtyla had an “unusual combination of intellectual qualities with those of an active, practical, and organized man.” This combination alarmed them, but they also suspected that his intellectual gifts made him soft. In 1962, the archbishop of Krakow died. The government reserved the right to veto his successor, and veto they did, rejecting every name Wyszynski and Rome put forward for a year. Finally, in the fall of 1963, the head of the Polish Communist party told one of Wyszynski’s aides: “I’m waiting for Wojtyla, and I’ll continue to veto names until I get him.” Surer proof of Providence would be hard to find.
The Communists believed that Wojtyla—a poet, philosopher, and intellectual—was a man of ideas, not power. They soon realized their mistake. When he was created cardinal in 1967, the surveillance of Wojtyla increased to Lives of Others levels. A four-page questionnaire was dispatched to every SB informant, agent, and collaborator who had ever run across him. Did Wojtyla smoke? What brand of cigarette? When did he shave? Who polished his shoes? How often did he go to the dentist? With each passing year the authorities grew more concerned about Wojtyla’s abilities as a defensor civitatis. Between 1973 and 1974 the SB seriously considered arresting him and charging him with sedition on three separate occasions.
The secret war continued into John Paul’s pontificate, with spies in the Holy See and agents constantly trying to disrupt his activities. During his homecoming to Poland in 1979, the SB created a special section to drive Poles away from the services and minimize the news of the crowds who came to see him. The operation, dubbed LATA ’79, was a failure: Some 11 million Poles—one-third of the country—saw him in person during the nine days of his pilgrimage.
In George Weigel’s hands, none of this history is a chore. His vivid accounting is, here and there, leavened with acid wit. In one passage, he recounts the death of Metropolitan Nikodim, president of the World Council of Churches and a KGB spy known as ADAMANT. Fittingly enough, ADAMANT died during a private audience with John Paul I, suffering a heart attack in the course of their interview. As he expired in the pontiff’s arms, his last words were, “I am not a KGB agent.” Weigel tartly observes, “But he was.” Explaining the Soviets’ plan to retrench after losing this asset, Weigel notes that the KGB issued secret order #00122, which bore the “gloriously Stalinist” title: “Measures to Strengthen Agent Operational Work in the Struggle with the Subversive Activity of Foreign Clerical Centers and Hostile Elements among Church People and Sectarians.” No wonder they lost the Cold War.
The funniest moment in this otherwise serious and excellent book, however, takes place at the outdoor Mass at St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 1978, where the newly named Pope John Paul II was inaugurating his service. The square was filled with visiting officials and dignitaries. The Soviet ambassador to Italy—a sly Party man who had some inkling of the storm gathering before him—leaned over to the president of Poland and remarked icily, “The greatest achievement of the Polish People’s Republic was to give the world a Polish pope.”
He was, perhaps, righter than he knew. And The End and the Beginning is an achievement, too. You cannot fully understand the man who will pass into history as John Paul the Great without it.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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