By Raymond T. Gawronski
Holiness. There was a palpable holiness around him. Though of course only the Church can declare someone a saint, there was no doubt that those chanting santo subito
at his funeral had been touched by something unmistakable. Odd as it may seem, every morning, at dawn, when he prayed in his chapel in the Vatican, it was like watching Aslan the Lion at the kneeler, for Pope John Paul II used to groan in his praying as if he were wrestling with God. Holiness is an unusual thing, an unworldly thing. John Paul was joyful but not frivolous, serious but not somber. Deeply believing, and so pious, but his piety was never a barrier nor yet a shield from people. It was simply real, for he was simply in the presence of God and he knew it.
So it was the times I was blessed to be present at his private Masses in the Vatican, during the five years when I studied in Rome. Sometimes I was with a small group. Once, I was one of two priests at the altar with him. Those were the days when I would take breaks from my doctoral studies and travel into the Soviet Union to give retreats, or to visit and minister to the long-persecuted Catholics there. Our Lady of Fatima was my special patroness on those visits.
I will confess at the outset that I have always loved John Paul II, from the moment I became aware of his existence, on his elevation to the papacy over thirty years ago now. Of course, there was a deep connection because we were both children of the Polish nation and, like all believing Poles, were prone to feel that his election was in a way the setting to rights the great crime committed when, at the end of World War II, her allies betrayed Poland by handing her over to Stalin and the cultural genocide long prepared by the communists. Perhaps the most Roman Catholic nation in Europe was simply written out of Europe. Now justice had come from God — and from God alone. It was worth the wait.
Unlike others, however, I was never invited to share a meal with him after those early morning Masses, and we did not communicate. Rather, our encounters were limited to concelebration at such Masses and simple greetings in various reception lines in Rome. Still, I felt I knew him, and even knew him intimately. For one thing, he looked like my father, moved like him. For another, we would have known the same history, unwritten because banned by the commissars of the Soviet Empire and their willing collaborators in the Western academy. We knew that truth suffers, is crucified and buried in this world: but that truth will be victorious. Yes, I believe we knew each other.
The day he was elected Pope was the happiest day of my life. None has surpassed it, and by now I suspect none could or ever will, short of the day I go home to the Lord. During his papacy, there was much expected opposition to him. At first, there was an ignorant hope among many in the West that any non-Italian would simply be a liberal. That hope was soon squashed, and the hostility commenced. It was worst in the Catholic world, where he was simply hated by many. It was a common experience for me to encounter people who for over twenty years would not hesitate to say they were eagerly awaiting his death: they wanted him dead. He opposed their vision of the Church — "agendas" that had emerged in the past decade or so — and this man, unapologetic about his rootedness in the Catholic tradition, was the living obstacle to the realization of the final dismantling of that tradition and the full embrace of the agendas set by the contemporary world. Rather quickly, this hostility became trite, expected, and really a testimony to the greatness — and the truth — of John Paul II. This was a persecution that redounded to his greatness and God's glory.
But there were other elements that were more problematic, because they came from people who saw in him both a great hope and a great ally. This criticism was much more powerful, and much nearer to home, and it continues. On a number of occasions, and a number of issues, he shocked and dismayed his loyal followers. A seemingly small matter — the allowing of altar girls — was a matter of tremendous demoralization to those who had been fighting what was at the time simple disobedience, a disobedience it seems Rome eventually rewarded. And there is the lingering, deeper, question of wisdom — and faithfulness to Scripture and Tradition — in the matter of gender in the contemporary Church.
Other problematic areas tended to emerge from John Paul's apparently excessive irenicism, especially as regards other religious traditions. Though applauded by many, the gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi greatly troubled some Catholics who are much concerned with syncretism and indifferentism. His visit to a mosque in Damascus, and apparent kissing of a Koran (denied by his assistant), is increasingly seen as deeply wrong, given what many are coming to learn — or to be reminded — of Islam. The apologies of the Pope for the sins of Catholics to other groups struck many as entirely unilateral and wide open to misunderstanding, the sort that allowed the enemies of the Church to say, "You see, they're just as bad as we've been saying all along."
Others criticize him severely for not being a good administrator. This is seen most painfully in the American Church's crisis of clerical sex abuse, revelations of which exploded toward the end of his papacy.
Finally, there is a sense that he was too much a showman, that in fact there was a cult of personality around him that he not only tolerated but may have encouraged. A great Polish scholar of my acquaintance, who personally knew and greatly admired John Paul, was horrified that he would allow statues of himself to be made during his lifetime: It reminded my friend of the cult of Stalin.
Now, five years after his death, John Paul has been declared a "Servant of God," and the road does in fact now lie open for his beatification and possible canonization. So a prayerful, studied reception of this Servant of God by the Church is very much needed.
It would be impossible to defend every decision, every action — or failure to act — of John Paul, if only for the simple fact, rooted in dogma, that as a man he was a sinner, he was imperfect. Even the greatest of saints have trouble shaking off venial sin. St. Peter himself denied Christ. It may well be that any one, or even all, of the actions that so trouble his recent critics were simply wrong-headed if good-hearted.
What I would like to suggest here is a different angle of viewing that may be of some help to people of good will, who saw something of the greatness and even holiness of John Paul, and yet were puzzled by his style. And here I turn to his Polish heritage, because I believe it is the key to understanding him.
The first and last thing to say about the Poles is that they are unique among the larger European Catholic nations in that they were never — never — part of the Roman Empire, though they became totally rooted in Roman Catholicism. But they were never part of the pagan empire or the "holy Roman" Empire. At some profound level that I keep touching but cannot quite specify, this is determinative. The Western European nations all have roots as Roman provinces; many of them — and Russia as well — have at one time or another seen themselves as "empires" in their own right, sometimes claiming actual descent from Rome. Though the Polish nobility adored everything Roman, it was the republic that the Poles always emulated, not the empire. Indeed, their traditions were so opposed to royal tyranny of any sort that they became prey to the rapacity of autocratic neighbors for several centuries. But their national instincts were different, and it can be argued that history has been proving them right. Part of that difference is a strong insistence on subsidiarity, on local government, and resistance to the sort of tyranny that came from Berlin or Moscow or, in another sphere, Rome.
Poland has been called the "state without stakes." While Western Europe went through long periods of savage religious wars, the phenomenon was virtually unknown in Poland. Poland's tolerance bordered on indifferentism, and was severely criticized by Western European Catholics for centuries.
Religious tolerance went along with what today we would call multiculturalism, obnoxious as that phrase has become. For most of its history, Poland was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state with a degree of tolerance unheard of elsewhere in the world. It was this tolerance that allowed various Protestant sects to thrive in Poland, much to the chagrin of Roman authorities; that allowed a Muslim presence to abide long after the invasions from the East; and that, perhaps most significantly, allowed the Jewish community to find a safe haven when Jews were being expelled from all of Western Europe and forbidden settlement in Russia.
I am reading a book on the Templars as I write this, a crusading order of the early second millennium. I am slightly surprised that I see so much of Europe involved in the crusades — including Hungary — but in the book Poland is not mentioned once, even though Poland became a kingdom at about the same time as Hungary. But Poland was not a significant presence in these crusades. Along with the crusades in the Holy Land, there was another crusade, the "Northern Crusade" against the pagan Baltic peoples, and when the Poles linked up with the recently converted Lithuanians for the biggest battle of their early history, it was against these "northern crusaders," the "Knights of the Cross," who simply saw anyone from Eastern Europe as a pagan, no matter that the Poles had already been Catholics for centuries. To defend themselves against the massed knights of Western Europe, the Poles did align themselves with Muslims and Tartars, something their Western neighbors would never forget, something that Hitler used in his propaganda, seven hundred years (of Catholicism!) later.
John Paul was from the heart of Europe, and he was profoundly European and Roman Catholic; but John Paul was from a country that has a unique history, a history that does not have historical roots in Rome itself or in the Western Europe that emerged with the breakdown of Rome. Moreover, he came from a part of the world that was eventually colonized by its neighbors in Western Europe and by Russia as well. The crusading "Teutonic Knights" became secularized, centuries later, and formed the Prussian state, which eventually became the ultimate nightmare for Poland. The former is so similar to the secularized Europe of today, with its Christian roots, but whose worldly success reveals that it was in fact a "failed Christianity." For all its own failings, Poland emerged as the most Catholic nation in Europe, and this Catholicism was confident and unashamed, if mindful of its sinfulness.
Yet John Paul's nation was a nation that for several centuries had been reduced to colonial status at best; in fact, the Poles were at various times in the past several centuries slated for destruction if not actual extermination. A nation of slaves was what the Nazis had decided for the Poles, quite literally. Slave labor was explicitly instituted in German-occupied Poland where the Poles were seen as sub-humans, and Soviet-occupied Poland had its own version of slave labor. Humiliation and exploitation were the rule of the day. Perhaps most killing of all was the need to destroy any and all traces of a Polish nation or state, let alone one that was highly cultured, intelligent, and refined. Sadly, some of this modern European prejudice has spilled over into our own country, and it was not helpful in this regard that Polish immigration to this country (unlike other Polish emigrations) was so predominantly of the desperately poor who generally came to earn money to buy more land — back home — and so invested more slowly in the host culture than other groups.
Someone who knows firsthand the arrogance and high-handedness of the colonial powers of the West (and East) would have an understanding of Muslim resentment that few Westerners could have. Noteworthy too is the great popularity John Paul experienced in Mexico and the Philippines, impoverished nations both, far surpassing anything he experienced in Western Europe. Misery loves company.
I have wondered why he was so beloved in so many of the poorer nations of the world, while the more prosperous nations of the world — most notably in Northern Europe — treated him with at best icy reserve. Photos from his visits to Krakow help me understand. At the edges of the vast parks there are not rows of single-family homes, as we have in the U.S. and other prosperous countries. Instead, the parkland yields instantly to blocks of poured-concrete apartment houses, the sort of "blocks" in which a very high proportion of the world's population live, "blocks" which until recently we in the U.S. used to call "projects." We live in a world formed by the rise of bourgeois societies stemming from the Reformation: these characterize Northwestern Europe and the U.S. But most of the globe is peopled by cultures that have not known the dominance of this class of people, of this style of living. Instead, a great proportion of the world is inhabited by peoples who were rapidly thrust from villages into "projects," from traditional — and religious — rural societies into the radically secularized world of modernity. Surrounded by the world of "blocks," of the particularly soulless projects built by atheist governments in Eastern Europe to shelter "the masses," John Paul emerged carrying the ultimate symbol of God and wounded humanity: the Crucified One. In this he proclaimed hope to all in Africa or Asia or Latin America who have known God, and long for God, and who find themselves in societies rapidly moving away from any traditional expression of the relation to God. It was the hope he fostered when he led the battle to have a church built in what the communists had planned to be a modern, godless workers' town near Krakow, called Nowa Huta.
At a deeper level, humans — especially economically deprived humans — are at risk of a profound dehumanization in the modern world. John Paul was profoundly human — that is, he was an actor, a being of dramatic performance, not cowed or subdued by the demands of any machine, political or physical. This ability to perform drew millions to him for whom he was vibrantly alive, far from the gray personage representing some bureaucracy or another. Somehow, one of their own had gotten into a position of great power, and the little people instinctively knew and loved it.
I have heard it said that "the saints have no resentment." Perhaps the most edifying virtue I see in John Paul is the absence of resentment. Looking at the Muslim world in hundreds of pictures and stories over dozens of years now, it is resentment above all that seems to characterize that world. It seems the experience of having once been great — memories of Baghdad and Muslim Spain, etc. — and then the humiliation of being divided up by European powers, and the symbolic insult of the state of Israel, have created and fed a seemingly bottomless pit of resentment in the Muslim world. I think John Paul instinctively understood this, through the history of his own people, who emerged from the utter wasteland of World War II only to spend the next fifty years under the boot heel of Stalinism — no Marshall Plan, no new state — and as the butt of Pollack jokes in global media. I suspect he understood the temptation to resentment — he would have had to — and overcame it. Perhaps with this in mind one can better appreciate his reaching out to Muslims, his desire to show human respect for fellow men who, at the very least, do not accept the modern atheist vision, even if some of his gestures certainly raise serious religious questions.
There is a theme I have encountered in Slavophile authors and even in Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (in his poem "To Robinson Jeffers") in which the Slavic sensibility is contrasted with the Western: Whereas Western Europe is seen as profoundly pagan, haunted by notions of doom and fate, grim battles to the death with no reconciliation, the Slavic foundational myths hold out the hope that the inevitable fratricidal conflict will end up with reconciliation, everyone seated around one table, eating — and drinking! There was much of this largeness of soul to John Paul, something childlike in his desire to embrace everybody, with no cynical knife held behind his back. He was no fool, but he had so large and pure a soul that, to him, the sins of man — if he really could believe that men could be as wicked as they apparently were in Boston, among other places — were more like swarming mosquitoes that could simply be brushed away than products of a corrupt, cynical world.
This sweetness of soul, this heart reaching out to all, is what touched tens of millions of people worldwide who saw in John Paul's face a man who had worked in a stone quarry, who had known his people slaughtered in countless wars, who had known what it was like to have to rely on God alone, and not on a wealthy economy or worldly prestige.
His home culture offered something of an anima naturaliter Christiana, it offered a rich nature on which grace could build. But the heart of his greatness was beyond any culture, because it came from his union, in prayer, with his Lord and the Lord's Blessed Mother. This union in prayer — above all else — defined his papacy. It was a union that was unmistakable, and easily seen by the masses of people who thronged to see him, to touch him, as the very Vicar of Christ. Perhaps they did not begin a program of moral conversion, in spite of the Pope's admonitions. They simply loved him, and the unreachable God made accessible to them through His representative. It is for God's grace to work the many hidden miracles on the souls in which the seeds of His love were planted by the man whose constant companion, and very symbol, was the crucifix of his Lord.
Could he have...? Should he have...? These questions will always be there. No doubt John Paul was an unworthy servant of so great a Master. But then, what are we? What John Paul did do was offer the world an image of hope that grew out of that crucifix he always carried, the crucifix he always held forth to others. St. Paul says, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ." Indeed there was something of that to the performer who certainly sat at center stage. Yet he never pointed to himself, but to
the Lord, whom he encountered every dawn in prayer.
[Fr. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J., a native of New York City, is a professor of dogmatic theology and a spiritual director at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. Fr. Gawrongski's foregoing article, "John Paul II: A Character Study," was originally published in New Oxford Review (April 2010), pp. 18-22, and is reproduced here by kind permission of
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