This life of John Paul II by a theatrical biographer offers fresh and fascinating insights into the great man, says Jonathan Aitken – but something is missing Universal Father: A Life of John Paul II by Garry O’Connor, Bloomsbury £20 On October 16, 1978, the day when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, he was the subject of a remarkable prophecy by Richard Nixon. By chance it was I who broke the news of the papal election result to the 37th President of the United States in his suite at Claridges, soon after hearing it on my car radio. There was a long and thoughtful Nixonian silence of the kind I became accustomed to in our biographer-subject relationship.
Eventually it was broken by Nixon saying: “A Polish Pope, eh? He could be the spark that will set alight the tinderbox of political discontent across Eastern Europe and destroy communism.” This was an astonish ingly prescient forecast 12 years before the Berlin Wall came down but Wojtyla was tuned to the same prophetic wavelength even earlier.
In 1956 he told his compatriot Archbishop Gulbinowicz that he thought the whole Russian empire (including the Soviet Union) was “a house of cards” and that once the population could be inspired to face up to “the big bluff” the whole edifice of communism would come tumbling down.
Garry O’Connor’s intriguing book is full of such revealing nuggets of information mined from the early words and writings of the late Pope. The author’s angle is that he is attempting to explain what makes his subject tick, inspired by John Paul II’s own observation about his chroniclers and biographers: “They try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside.” So O’Connor offers an artistic and psychological portrait of the inner man rather than a full historical account of the whole man.
The genre of insider-byoutsider biography (O’Connor only briefly met the Pope) takes the reader well into the realms of speculation. The young Wojtyla’s activities as a thespian in wartime Krakow are faithfully recorded. As a playwright in his early 20s he evidently showed considerable talent, creating dramas featuring Polish heroes based on the Biblical characters of David, Job and Jeremiah.
As an actor he demonstrated a commanding stage presence in various amateur theatricals. But does this justify the author’s leap to a sweeping mid-life conclusion on his subject: “In a deep sense he remained a man who was always acting”? Perhaps the over-egging of this particular pudding may owe something to O’Connor’s previous track record as the author of six theatrical biographies. Some of the book’s best chapters are straight forward narrative accounts. O’Connor captures the dramas of the 1978 papal conclaves, the global travels and the assassination attempt with power and colour.
The account of the 1979 pilgrimage to Poland is exceptionally well told, and there are fascinating insights into the rela tionship between John Paul II and his successor when Benedict XVI was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. O’Connor hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Both he [John Paul II] and Ratzinger came to the conclusion that only a Church with a strong central authority and rock solid doctrinal verities could resist a hostile state or culture and as those cultures became, as they did, increasingly hostile and intolerant towards direction from above and towards conservative morality so it was even more important to stand firm.” But where do those “rock solid doctrinal verities” come from? Are there any new revelations in this book from Wojtyla’s early years, poems, plays and philosophical works that may guide the reader through the forces of his leadership, charisma, spirituality and holiness? O’Connor tries hard and deserves credit for unearthing early poems about stillness, maternal tenderness and the power to reach out with universal appeal.
The early life clues are well sifted, too. Yet John Paul II’s inner man was so intensely private – he spent seven hours of his day alone with God in prayer – that it somehow seems a trifle presumptuous for any terrestrial author to try to make windows into such a great soul. Despite such limitations and weakness of mere earthly biography, Garry O’Connor may be getting close to one aspect of the truth about his extraordinary subject when he concludes: “In the end the mystic inside Wojtyla has triumphed.” From the early beginnings of his youthful thesis on St John of the Cross (were no quotes or extracts from this possible?) to his lonely vigils in hospital after the assassination, to his final days as a suffering and dying servant, there was an unbroken line of mystical aloneness, completeness, and oneness with God in the young Pole and the old Pope. Mortal writers can only trawl around the lower slopes of such a holy mountain. This book does well in excavating its foothills but the higher and holier secrets of “the inner man” of John Paul II are not laid bare.