Abraham Lincoln, when asked what were his plans to win the war, was quoted as saying “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”.
I thought of this quote when pondering what to write about the imminent death of Pope John Paul II. Was Lincoln correct? Are we condemned to simply ride the whirlwind of history, thrown here and there by capricious forces beyond our control? Or do men command this whirlwind through the force of their own personality and wisdom of their decisions?
For me personally, these are the questions that make reading history worthwhile. So when we reflect on the extraordinary life of Karol Wojtyla, a good and holy man, it is impossible to separate him from the times he lived in.
Oh, and what times they were! To have this man, this Pope elected to the Papacy at a time when two of the 20th Century’s most determined foes of tyranny and passionate advocates for liberty – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – also came to power in their respective countries would have seemed to the Greeks as nothing less than proof that fate ruled the affairs of men.
John Paul’s alliance with the Anglo-Americans was never set down on paper and coordination was superficial at best. But where Reagan and Thatcher’s hard-headed actions to defeat Soviet Communism stopped, the Pope’s moral authority took root and turned the tide toward people power by giving legitimacy to the aspirations for freedom so longed for by so many in that captive part of the world.
In short, Pope John Paul II gave a final answer to Josef Stalin’s contemptuous question when conflict with the Catholic Church in Russia seemed unavoidable. “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Stalin asked. This Pope could have told him he not only had the heavenly host of angels on his side but the millions of hearts and minds of people that yearned to breathe free, ready to march at his command.
The troika of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul at first glance, made strange bedfellows indeed. Reagan, the small town Midwesterner, Hollywood actor, and ideologue, came to politics late in life but made up for it with a burning passion for making a difference and restoring America’s greatness. Thatcher was an almost lifelong politician whose free market ideas transformed socialist Britain and restored respect for British leadership on the continent of Europe and in the world.
But the Pope’s experience was very different. Young Karol Wojtyla came of age just as the Nazi’s started their murderous rampage across Europe. His plans to be an actor were scuttled during the Nazi occupation resulting in his hearing the call of service to the Church. Attending an underground seminary (the Nazi’s murdered 100,00 religious in Poland alone), young Karol also started an underground theater group whose performances were noteworthy for the revolutionary use of language and a spirit of defiance.
Ordained after the war, Father Wojtyla had to learn to live with an entirely different form of tyranny. When the communists staged an “election” in 1948 and took control, Father Wojtyla at first, took little notice. He was consumed with the study of theology and philosophy. Blessed with a supple and inquisitive mind, he traveled to Rome where his mentor, the great Vatican theologian Father Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, opened his mind to the intricacies and subtlety of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Returning to Poland, the young priest carried out several pastoral assignments at various churches in Krakow. But his continued thirst for knowledge drew him to the fine university in that city where he eventually became Chaplain of Students. (Given the Pope’s almost rock star status among the youth of the world, I wonder what it would have been like to have him as an adviser at that time?)
Completing his doctorate in Theology, Father Wojtyla became professor of moral theology and social ethics in the major seminary of Krakow and in the Faculty of Theology of Lublin. From there he was named Axillary Bishop of Krakow (1958), Archbishop (1964), and Cardinal (1967).
We’ll never know what possessed the College of Cardinals to name him to the papacy following the short reign of John Paul I. But here’s a revealing anecdote from a PBS Frontline report on a trip to Rome then Cardinal Wojtyla made in 1976 to give a lecture:
In 1976, Pope Paul VI invited Wojtyla to give the Lenten lectures in Rome. John Cornwell, biographer of Pius XII, wrote about the occasion vividly, describing how in one of Cardinal Wojtyla’s lectures he stunned his audience with his dark apocalyptic vision of the world “as a burial ground….a vast planet of tombs.” His heightened poetic language, filled with images of darkness and light, showed the influence of his early hero, St. John of the Cross. The remainder of these lectures explored themes foreshadowing all the major points of Wojtyla’s Pontificate: the centrality of Christ in the history of salvation; the inviolable dignity of every individual person; the proper relationship between the creator and creation; the dangerous error of living as if God did not exist; the value and salvific meaning of suffering.
During these lectures, Cardinal Wojtyla also surprised his audience by revealing an extremely personal story about his own ‘dark night.’ This story has rarely been remarked on, but clearly it has resonated deeply for Wojtyla and sheds light on intimate corners of his spiritual life. Years ago in Poland, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, Woytyla had a deep religious experience. As he talked about it many years later, Cardinal Wojtyla said, with some sadness, that he tried again and again to recreate this mystical moment but was never able to. His friend Monsignor Albacete finds this story poignant and moving: “This man is telling us that he, too, has had the experience of God’s absence and that when he prays he tries to relive that mystical moment of closeness. But it always goes away from him.” It is a familiar story of mystics who early on in their lives experience a powerful epiphanous moment that they yearn to experience again, but can’t, and must be sustained by the fragments of a memory for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps the Cardinals saw the towering intellect of the man as well as his simple humanity. Whatever they were looking for in a Pope, they apparently found in this man who had battled with authorities for years to build a cathedral in his beloved Krakow as well as ordain more priests than the communists would allow.
I will not attempt to analyze the dogmatic or spiritual nature of his pontificate. But Pope John Paul’s political skills – the ability to get people to act as the sharp end of the stick – were without question on par with both Reagan and Thatcher. He had a flair for the dramatic and could “work a crowd” as well or better than those two legendary figures. Just watching a tape of him recently during his second visit to Poland in 1983 with Communist strongman General Jaruzelski was striking in that it showed the people of his native Poland who was in charge. The Pope was calm, serene even as he stood with Jaruzelski in front of the press while the communist dictator was incredibly ill at ease, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and looking around the room as if seeking the assistance of someone. The Pope, realizing his host’s distress. smiled a mischievous smile and moved even closer to Jaruzelski.
The look of panic on the dictator’s face would have been comical if we didn’t now know that Soviet Premier Andropov had threatened to send in tanks unless Jaruzelski got a handle on the political instability roiling Poland as a result of the Pope’s visit. Poland was under martial law at the time and John Paul’s arrival signaled that it didn’t matter how many divisions of soldiers the Pope could put in the field, he could command the loyalty of the people and Jaruzelski couldn’t. Game. Set. Match.
Which brings me back to my original question. Would the events that transpired in the 1980’s occurred without one or all of the “freedom troika” of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul? A determinist would say yes, that the undercurrents of history at work in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would have caused the fall of communism anyway.
I totally reject that notion. Given the alternatives in the United States (Carter and Mondale) as well as Great Britain (James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock) it seems more likely that Soviet communism would have limped along as it had for more than 60 years at that point, being propped up by western defeatism and myopia. And an Italian Pope as an almost certain alternative to Cardinal Wojtyla would not have had the standing in eastern Europe to affect much change at all.
Most determinists reject this kind of counterfactualism for good reason. Such speculation can’t be quantified or measured. At the same time though, given the larger than life personalities of the three, can anyone really imagine the same thing happening at any other time with any other leaders?
Cross-Posted at Blogger News Network