Cultural History

Superstar Pope of the Cold War Era: John Paul II Remembered


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John Paul II's return to Poland, 1979

John Paul II’s return to Poland, 1979

Kraków,  the Polish city in which Pope John Paul II – then Karol Wojtyła – was once cardinal, has at a rough estimate more than two hundred churches, and they are of every variety: Gothic churches, Baroque churches, Romanesque churches; Bernardine churches, churches Franciscan, Jesuit, Capucine and Carmelite. There are churches which stand out proudly from surrounding buildings, churches which you happen upon almost like secret grottoes, churches which are stern and grave, cosy and consoling, churches into which the daylight penetrates brightly, or are shrouded in a numinous gloom. Bells seem to be tolling constantly, and images of Pope John Paul II are everywhere – in bars, on walls, in private windows, swinging from the rear-view mirrors of taxi-drivers. At an early evening mass, in one of the lesser churches, a lifesize cardboard figure of the Pope peeps out from behind the curtain, keeping a watch over the congregation as they sing the responses. It’s as though they can’t quite  bear to let him go. In place of his actual presence, it’s the best they can do.

Though Wojtyła hailed from Wadowice, a small town 40 miles away, it’s overwhelmingly Kraków with which he’s associated: he rose from priest to Cardinal here, and was deeply valued by the populace: for his simplicity, his lack of stuffiness, his ability to connect. In his youth, Wojtyła had been a gifted poet, a philosopher, a graceful dancer, and one of the city’s most talented young actors too, writing plays, directing them, performing in Kraków’s foremost (and later underground) amateur theatre groups: a profession he longed to follow, and in which it’s generally agreed he would have made a success. Yet after a pair of  life-changing accidents – the first involving a tram, the second a lorry – he felt called, inescapably, to the church, and was ordained as priest in 1946.

Pope-John-Paul-II-EyesThough committed to his city, it was the countryside he loved best, escaping there whenever he could, on trekking, skiing, canoeing expeditions, and whatever his age, he always seemed to get on best with the young: including them, charming them with a sense of humour and a friendliness that made those he met,  they said, feel valued and unique. Though much of what you read of John Paul II is surely hagiographic, this picture’s so universally endorsed – along with reports of his youthful celibacy – that it seems accurate, as do reports of Wojtyła’s moral courage. The Catholic Church in Poland, in the decades after the war, went through a gruelling time: Church lands were nationalised, religious instruction stripped from the school curriculum, its charitable institutions usurped by the state. At one moment, in the early fifties, eight bishops and nine hundred priests were in prison, for questioning a communist ideology which found any other system of thought anathema. Yet Wojtyła stood up to the communists, attacking them again and again. For a sense of the man’s eloquence, his willingness to confront those in power with a clarity of speech and thought unknown to them, one need only read an extract from a typical sermon of his, delivered in Wawel Cathedral in 1976:

We cannot remain silent, these anxieties weigh upon our hearts; the problem is fundamentally one of social ethics. And we, bishops, priests and all believers, cannot be indifferent to the problem.

We are all Poland, all of us, believers and unbelievers. But it cannot be that Poland’s destiny should be decided by the non-believers against the will of the believers. For Poland is not a chance reality. Poland is a thousand years of history. Poland is this Wawel Castle, this Cathedral, these tombs of our Kings. Poland stands for innumerable victories and innumerable sufferings! 

This is all my wish, and wish is for every man, for every man who believes, for every man who is seeking, that he may seek without the fear that someone may say to him, it is forbidden…

It was almost certainly this clarity of thought and diction, principle and the willingness to act on it, that made him the superstar Pope of our era, but there was more to it than that. Able – and eager – to converse in several languages, he also had a star quality that made the renunciation of his early acting career seem the sacrifice it was. Occasionally he struck a wrong note and seemed out of step with his times – his dismissal of homosexuality as an ‘ideological evil’ or his resistance to Liberation Theology in Latin America, making him appear for once reactionary and mean-spirited, on the wrong side. But such moments also seemed to prove his essential sincerity –  that being true to one’s beliefs was more important than merely being popular. As to the latter, he could scarcely avoid it: his visits to communist Poland in the 1980s, attended by millions, were not so much a thorn in the Kremlin’s side as a battering ram from the front. Wojtyła’s trip to Gniezno, Poland’s first capital, attended by a flock which stretched over the horizon, was one of those defining moments in communism’s slow fall and Poland’s spiritual rebirth. ‘We realised’, said writer Radek Sikorski, ‘that “we” were more numerous than “them”… It was partly from that feeling of millions of people coming peacefully together and feeling their strength that Solidarity was born the next year.’

It’s almost impossible to imagine the atmosphere at these mass-events: it was like nothing else and could scarcely be captured in words, though Timothy Garton Ash’s ‘The Pope in Poland’, an account of a typical mass-gathering, does a better job than most. He describes the waving Solidarity banners, the chanting crowds, and the sudden silence:  ‘half a million people listening with such attention that you could hear a rosary drop…. He is speaking to them. They are speaking to him.’ He writes too of the sheer impossibility of communicating much of what Pope John Paul has to say to his fellow Poles, ‘It is impossible because so much depends on a theatrical delivery… It is impossible because poetry is what gets lost in translation.’

Yet there’s nothing that gets lost in his description of the event’s closing moments: ‘As he walks slowly off the dais, waving to left and to right, they send up a last, chanted emotional message, “Stay with us, stay with us, stay with us…’


Monument to Pope John Paul II in Krakow. Image by Mark Healey

Image by Mark Healey

‘Oh, we loved him,’ said Dorota, a young Krakówian grandmother. ‘I was at that sermon, where he told us, ‘Be not afraid.’ Oh God yes.’ For a moment she looked almost electrified by the memory.  ‘I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Can you see?’

I could.

‘I knew him, you see. Knew him when he was Bishop here….We suffered so much, all of Poland did when he died, but maybe here particularly… People everywhere were crying. Teachers in the schools, people in the shops, on buses.. I’ve never seen such grief before, not anywhere. Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I felt as bad as when my own father died.’

But it had been a merciful release, surely, I said. I was thinking of the Parkinson’s disease, the terrible shaking hands. The way he could barely say the words of the prayers.

‘That’s true,’ she agreed.  ‘But we still wanted him never to die. You don’t understand… you can’t unless you knew him. You can’t imagine how he was with people, not unless you’ve been in the same room as him. His presence, that charisma. And this ability always to say the right thing to you, without getting dogmatic. I can’t explain, really. But he made people want to be good.’

The responses in the mass – Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon  – echo back in the Kraków church in rhythmical, lulling waves: predictable and enfolding. But beneath it all, what you remember is that childlike plea, now addressed in Wojtyła’s absence to something far more remote and less touchable:

‘Stay with us…. stay with us… stay with us….’


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