The Election of John Paul II

[Editors note: In the November 10, 1979 Commonweal, the editors wrote about the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.]

By now the stunned silence of the evening crowd that greeted the mysterious name Wojtyla—announced a little more than two weeks ago by Pericle Cardinal Felici—has given way to a long, world-wide, cumulative, almost awesome cheer as the human community has gained some sense of the once obscure man now called John Paul II and has begun to suspect that his impact on all our lives may well surpass anything his electors may have intended.

Indeed, plunging at once into his two political-religious worlds, he has already removed Felici from his most influential post, directing the implementation of Vatican II, and now talks about flying to Lebanon if his presence would help end the Moslem-Christian war.

For a while it seemed that his several worlds were most astonished to find him so fully human: not just the simple humanity communicated by a smile, which may have distracted us from really discovering the meaning of his predecessor’s election, but the complex, vibrant humanity of a man who has tasted life and found it both painful and thrilling, who has seen and studied Western culture at its most sacred and most secular extremes and learned the glory, the limits, and the cost of human freedom.

Thus, for a number of reasons, the public has seized on every facet of his life that would make him one of us-or the man we might like to be. He was not “pious” as a youth. He had girl friends. He sings and plays the guitar. He swims, skis, climbs mountains, canoes, plays tennis, and schedules his inauguration early not to interfere with Italian soccer on TV. He plunges into crowds and answers reporters’ questions! He was a factory worker an actor, and member of the anti-Nazi underground; he writes poetry about love and toil. It is no wonder that the unfounded rumor that he had been married and his young wife shot by Nazis captivated the press for at least a few days-as if his life had not been both rich and tragic enough and he still needed a mythical “secret” to tease our imaginations.

Behind all this, the contemplative intellectual. The British New Statesman (October 20) reported the well-kept secret that his election “had, in fact, been expected in European intellectual circles for about three years, for the very good reason that it was in such circles that he was best-known.” A phenomenologist, the author of three books on sexuality and spirituality and over 300 articles, who said in a paper to International Congress on the 700th Anniversary of the death of Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1974, “only the man able to be master of himself can also become a gift to others.” A scholar who is most at home with students. A man who is not afraid of power but is also at ease with himself.

In this sense we seem blessed-almost spoiled-by Wojtyla’s Christian humanism in the fullest understanding of those words: that our belief in the Incarnation allows us to see the infinite dignity and divine potential in man; the Pope’s practical witness to his belief in God in Christ helps an unbelieving and half-believing world to look for ultimate meaning beyond itself.

This is why the response of the secular world to John Paul II has been most impressive, for so many voices outside the church seem to want him to be a truly “political” pope, not in the sense of the too familiar Vatican diplomacy and intrigue (exemplified in the kind of infighting and maneuvering that allowed his leading Italian contenders for the job to knock one another off), but as a big man in a world short of big men, a spiritual leader who marshalls his moral “divisions” in the name of justice.

Paris Match (October 27), quoting Cardinal Corrado Ursi before the Conclave, has called the age of John Paul II the hour of decisive confrontation between Christian humanism and materialism. And the Manchester Guardian Weekly (October 22) has worried that the Conclave has, in this critical hour, reached out “into the gavotte between Church and State” and given us the Vatican’s answer, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Meanwhile George F. Will (Newsweek, October 30) has suggested that in choosing this Cardinal from Poland, the land which as much as any nation is owed compensation for the calamities of modern history, the church has drawn attention to the unity of European culture and underscored the brutality of all attempts to impose Communism on ancient nations. Thus, to some commentators, this election is the Vatican’s warning to Mos¬cow that the church may have been taking a beating on some of its internal and personal problems, but on the major issues, those that define one’s turf-like freedom to worship-the church will not be pushed around.

Yet, it seems to us that the mind of John Paul II may not work that way. He is more likely to invite the atheist to dialogue than to combat; a dialogue that might uncover the valid obstacles to an atheist’s belief and also ask why Marxism has failed to satisfy man’s yearning for the absolute. With the new presence of John Paul II—as a man who so combines human qualities and spiritual depth with sophisticated secular vision—we may very well be entering an era in which the line between the religious and the secular may be more a bond than a barrier. An era when the word ‘relevant’ may regain its proper dignity—signifying not a rock band to sing the post—communism hymn but the religious dimension of human values. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla said in Cracow in 1976:

The principle of freedom of conscience and religion must be interpreted completely. This truth of the freedom of conscience and worship is proclaimed by everyone: from the Second Vatican Council to the Charter of Human Rights established by the UN, and even the Helsinki Conference, recognizes that it is the inviolable right of the person. But this inviolable right must be considered in an inviolable way! Every condition of social and national life should be arranged in such a way that this right is not violated; so that public life will not create privileges from above for some—unbelievers— and situations of inferiority for others—believers.

His context was Poland, but his philosophical starting point was not the rights of the institutional church but his humanistic understanding of the nature of man: “For it is necessary to respect what is in man! This is the first condition of all social life and of all equality between citizens of the same state."

We have learned since Vatican II the dangers of setting our hopes too high. But, is it too much to hope that the moral center of the world, in both the religious and secular sense may once again be Rome?

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