Page 6, 17th October 2003

17th October 2003
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Page 6, 17th October 2003 — John Paul the Great: the providential Pope

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Locations: Rome, Ttibingen, Oxford


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John Paul the Great: the providential Pope

William Oddie, editor of The Catholic Herald, argues that historians will come to regard John

Paul II as one of the most courageous, original and influential figures of the modem age

Atbout a decade ago, the late Professor Adrian Hastings — having the previous year published his controversial though unsurprising book The Theology of a mtestant Catholic — edited a substantial volume entitled Modern Catholicism, Vatican II and After. Ft wasa collection of essays containing contributions from what the dust jacket described as 'an international team of leading Catholic scholars': and among these contributions was an assessment of the pontificate thus fax of the Pope from Poland, by the distinguished commentator on Vatican affairs, the late Peter Hebblethwaite. It concluded with these words: "One would like to think that John Paul continues to learn from his stay in the West, not to mention his world-wide journeys; and that he might spend as much time trying to understand the rest of us as we have spent trying to understand him. It may be that his providential role is to test the conservative hypothesis to breaking point. At the conclave that elected him, it was possible to argue that the Church needed a strong hand on the tiller. At the next conclave, that argument will not wash: the conservative option will have been tried, and may well be found wanting. In the spiritual life, everyone fails. The seed falls into the ground and dies. But this will be a magnificent, heroic failure on a cosmic scale, with that special Polish dash."

A year or two later, in a little restaurant close to St Peter's, the same writer was quoted in the Catholic World Report as saying that "Nothing he has done will outlast him. Not the Catechism, not Verilatis Splendor, not the document on the ordination of women ... The new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start ... again"

I remembered these judgements in Westminster Cathedral, as I was listening, early in the new millenMUM, to a lecture (sponsored by The Catholic Herald) given by the Pope's biographer, George Weigel. It was entitled "'The achievement of John Paul II". It was not so much that Weigel's as. -..ssment of the Pope was very different, though certainly it was: John Paul's pontificate, he concluded. was "the most consequential since the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century".

But it was the people who had come to hear Weigel speak who were as interesting as the lecture itself: apart from anything else, there were so many of them. Originally, the plan had been for the lecture to take place in a hall seating about 200 people. But it was soon clear that this would have to be rethought: the lecture was moved to the nave of the cathedral, which holds about 1,000: and every seat was taken.

Ten years before such a response would not have been imaginable: what was the explanation? Why had they all come? They came, perhaps, partly because Weigel was known to have had the Pope's co-operation: the people had come to hear about the Pope's achievement from someone who could be trusted not to diminish it: what the people wanted, so it seemed to me, was an authentic assessment of the man who had become — if the somewhat Blairite language may be permitted — the people's Pope. Weigel's judgment on the pontificate's historical importance would have been controversial only a few short years before. Among those gathered in Westminster Cathedral that day. it had become so obvious that its restatement by George Weigel had about it a kind of ritual formality. It may be true that the Church thinks in millennia and not in decades; but a lot can happen in 10 years, nevertheless.

We need to return, all the same, to that early judgment of Peter Hebblethwaite's, and particularly to his speculation that it was the Pope's providential role to "test the conservative hypothesis to breaking point". In one sense, we can say simply that this prediction has already been very comprehensively falsified. There is much less chance today of being unthinkingly labelled "right wing" simply for accepting this Pope's teachings on faith and morals out of conviction, rather than reluctant acquiescence. As for John Paul himself, far from being perceived today as a reactionary Pope who has sought to reverse the advances inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council (the so-called "restorationist" analysis or scenario) it is, on the contrary, he who in the end has been perceived as the Council's most definitive interpreter and advocate. In the words of the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, "more than any other single individual he has succeeded in comprehensively restating the contours of Catholic faith in the light of Vatican II and in relation to post-conciliar developments in the Church and in the world".

This had, of course, been his intention from the beginning: after his election, he told the assembled

cardinals that his first task and "definitive duty" was to complete the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. But that is not, as we all know, how it was seen by some in the early years of the pontificate. The Pope's declaration was duly noted: but it soon began to cause confusion, particularly among many of those deeply devoted to a phenomenon widely known at the time as "the spirit of Vatican H". What could not be gainsaid by anyone was the Pope's transparently sincere enthusiasm for the Council he had attended. But it seemed clear, to some at least, that he really did not have the slightest idea what it had all been about. This conclusion was buttressed by an assumption — often quite openly expressed — that Vatican Il was largely the province of the Western Catholic intelligentsia, whose understanding of the Council was necessarily deeper and more subtle than the understanding of unsophisticated Eastern European prelates like the

former Archbishop of Cracow, cut off as he had been for so long from the sophisticated intellectual life enjoyed by theologians and journalists in such great Catholic centres as Ttibingen and Oxford. The difficulty for some observers, in Peter Hebblethwaite's words, was that though "utterly sincere when he declared his commitment to them, [the Pope.] nevertheless does not mean by 'Council' and 'Vatican 11' what most people in the West mean".

But what, we have to ask, did that mean? What it meant, of course, was that this Pope consistently refused to accept the view that Vatican II represented a radical break with Catholic tradition. As he declared in February, 2000: "If anyone reads the Council presuming that it marked a break with the past, while in reality it placed itself in line with the faith of all time, he definitely has gone astray."

There is a problem, nevertheless. For, though it is a temptation, in one way, simply to say that what we might call the anti-conservative hypothesis about Pope John Paul is not in the latter part of his pontificate looking very persuasive — in the sense that it is highly unlikely that in Hebblethwaite's words "the new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start ... again" — there is. nevertheless, a sense in which the judgment that the Pope is an essentially conservative figure dogs him yet. It is hard for anyone, even his enemies, to say that he is not a truly remarkable man. That now goes without saying. This is a Pope of real and undeniable stature.

But what else do we need to say? How will we think of him in the decades to come? How will he be seen by the world? These are not unimportant questions: for the higher our view of his legacy, the more sure it is that his legacy will be a determining factor in how the Church continues to face the third millennium. And the higher the view taken by the world — even when it understands him only dimly

— the more it will be inclined to take seriously a Church which both produced and has in turn been so massively influenced by such a figure.

I have referred in passing to George Weigel's assessment, that John Paul's pontificate has been the most consequential since the Protestant reformation. In his biography, he based this judgment on what he considered the Pope's eight greatest achievements; by the time he gave his Catholic Herald lecture in Westminster Cathedral, the list had gown to 10: the renovation of the papacy, the full implementation of Vatican H, the collapse of communism, the clarification of the moral challenges facing free society, the insertion of ecumenism into the heart of Catholicism, the new dialogue with Judaism, the redefinition of inter-religious dialogue, a fresh approach to the sexual revolution with his theology of the body, the Catechism and what it represents, and the personal inspiration that has changed

countless personal lives. This is a clear and unambiguous assessment, though I think that Weigel's list of achievements is still incomplete. Most notably, it fails to register the Pope's powerful support for the new ecclesial movements.

But even if Weigel's assessment had given a full and complete account of the Pope's achievements, it would still be seen by many (especially among secular observers) unduly oversimplified as a representation of the pontificate. Fur much of the Pope's reign — certainly for the secular world, but also for many Catholics — he has been a figure of paradox. He has been, so it is said, a social progressive but an ecclesiological reactionary; a pastoral bishop who had been deeply influenced by the Second Vatican Council but who then – or so some critics volubly assert even now — directed his entire pontificate towards a restoration of the Catholicism of the pre-conciliar period. He was a defender of liberty wherever the rights of men and women were denied by despotic regimes; and yet, his enemies soon began to claim that he himself silenced dissent among bishops and clergy quite as ruthlessly as any secular dictator. It seemed to many that he was wholly out of touch with the secular realities amid which he lived; and yet, almost uniquely among his contemporaries, he had a profound and subtle understanding of the nature of the historical forces that were to sweep away the postwar division of Europe between the capitalist West and the communist East.

Paradoxical or not, the achievement is there; it is solid and it is undeniable. However we resolve (or preferably deny) the supposed paradoxes, the general assessment now tends to be, in A N Wilson's words, that he is "unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times". But is there, in fact, a lot more to say: is John Paul simply a striking and interesting figure, even if he is the most striking and the most interesting of our times? Or is this one of those rare beings who possesses, truly, those qualities of vision and intensity of focus as well as of strength and originality that allow us to say, not only

here is John Paul, an exceptional Pope: but also, quite simply. here, truly, is Joannes Paulus Magnus, John Paul the Great?

Tie problem has to do with that word "conservative": we no longer, it seems, know what to do with it. A conservative is now seen as someone whose mind is focused simply on preserving what he has received: his gaze is averted firmly from any notion that what he has received might contain implications for the future which permit, or even demand, that there might have to be substantial change. And that, indeed, was the assumption of many who supposed themselves to be radicals, about the Pope's view of the Council. To quote Peter Hebblethwaite again, according to the Pope's understanding, "the purpose of the Council was essentially defensive. It was a matter of warding off errors, of preserving the deposit of faith". The trouble with such au assessment today — and had Peter Hebblethwaitc lived, he might well have come to see the point (he soon amended his dismissive view of lientads Splendor) — the trouble is that this really does not sound very much like the Pope we actually have: "defensive" is not a word which readily springs to mind.

But certainly we can accept that he is a conservative: the real question is what we mean when we say that. According to John Henry Newman, in a remarkably interesting discussion of Pope Gregory the Great, popes are necessarily conservative, in the sense that "they cannot bear anarchy, they think revolution an evil, they pray for the peace of the world". But, continues Newman, "a Conservative, in the political sense of the word, signifies something else, which the Pope never is, and cannot be. It means a man who is at the top of the tree, and knows it, and means never to come down, whatever it may cost him to keep his place there ... It means a man who defends religion, not for religion's sake, but for the sake of its accidents and externals; and in this sense Conservative a Pope never can be."

But, says Newman, `There is a more subtle form of Conservatism, by which ecclesiastical persons are more likely to be tempted and overcome ... This fault is an over-attachment to the ecclesiastical establishment, as such ... to traditional lines of policy, precedent and discipline, — to rules and customs of long standing. But a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith... He may use, he may uphold, he may and will be very slow to part with a hundred things which have grown up, or taken shelter, or are stored, under the shadow of the Church; but, at bottom, and after all he will be simply detached." So though they are conservative, Newman says, it is not in any bad sense: for although "the Popes have been old men", they "have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary. And, thus independent of times and places, the Popes have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy ... of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene".

What has surely become clear beyond any doubt is that this Pope's conservatism is of the kind that Newman is describing here; that is the.conservatism of which an essential element is the detachment typical of what Newman calls the Great pontiff and he was speaking particularly of Gregory the Great — from everything save the deposit of faith.

The two popes called "the great" — that is, Leo and Gregory — both lived in times of vast geopolitical upheavals in which they themselves were major players, both defending and preserving the Church herself and exercising a direct influence over the historical forces that had been unleashed by the great struggles for power that unfolded around them. Here, surely, may be discerned a clear parallel with the present Pope. An episode in the life of Leo the Great is particularly striking. In the year 452, when Northern Italy was under attack by Attila the Hun, Leo faced him near Mantua and persuaded him to withdraw his army. This episode is commemorated by a slightly absurd bas-relief in Si Peter's Basilica, which shows Leo in full papal rig, including the triple crown, with Attila recoiling in fear and amazement. There are differing versions of what actually happened (financial and other inducements may have played their part); but on any account, it was a triumph for Leo's powers of persuasion and for his grasp of geopolitical realities. "I can conquer men," Attila is recorded as saying, "but not the Lion (Leo)."

These events surely recall irresistibly an episode in the pontificate of Pope John Paul. By the beginning of December 1980, in response to the Polish Solidarity movement's extraordinary success, the Soviets had made a definite decision to invade Poland and moved several divisions of the Red Army up to the Polish border. Their plans were precise. After a massive two-day military operation, the Solidarity leadership would he liquidated by summary courts-martial and firing squads. There would then be installed a regime of the most brutal repression. On December 16, the Pope wrote a letter to the Soviet Leader, Leonid Brezhnev. It is written in the stilted language of diplomacy: but its message is firm. It conveys clearly without actually threatening it, that this invasion would be different, that the Poles would resist. We cannot say with certainty that this letter was what persuaded the Soviets to draw back (though the Red Army was indeed withdrawn a few days later) and to adopt an entirely different strategy for Poland: but we can certainly say that the Polish problem had become intractable mainly because oldie Pope's influence, that the Russians had come to understand this, and that without him, Soviet policy would have been vastly different. There could now be no more invasions.

Gregory the Great, too, was faced with a period of political instability. He took over the governance of the city of Rome, feeding a starving people; and he saw to the city's defence, raising troops and resisting a number of incursions from the North. Undoubtedly all this was part of a process leading to the growth of the secular political powers of the papacy, now, in the immortal words of 1066 and All That, universally held to he "a bad thing".

In a vital sense we can say that this Pope's geopolitical involvements show him to have exceeded in the worldly sense and transcended in the spiritual sense both of these two great predecessors. The collapse of the Eastern bloc is one of the great historical convulsions: this Pope not merely expected it and prayed for it, he played, by general consent, a large part in bringing it about. But we have to say more than that. We need to say that this vast political result was brought about, not by a reversion into the papacy's history of political intrigue and direct involvement in the deployment of worldly power, but by asserting the superior strength of the power of the spirit. The political levers of power were never directly an object of his concern: and yet those in the Solidarity movement who did confront the Polish secular state were motivated by a Catholic humanism in which the dignity of beings made in the image of God was central, and which had been powerfully revitalised by John Paul's charismatic evangelical presence. Tiere may have been popes whose lives were not ones of sacrificial service to the people of God: but Leo was not one, and Gregory was not one and John Paul is not one. The older John Paul becomes, the more clear it is that here is a man who lives wholly for God and for the people of God. The older he becomes, too, the more startlingly original he grows, the more he bears out that judgmeut of Newman's: that although "the [great] Popes have been old men", they "have ... never found any difficulty ... [in] following out a new and daring line of policy ... of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene".

It takes more than originality to be a great pope: it takes courage, the kind of courage which becomes infectious, so that it infuses the minds and hearts of the faithful. "Be not afraid," said John Paul in his inaugural sermon as pope; it was a sermon which powerfully established not only the tone of his pontificate but the breadth of his own mind and the vast scale on which he assessed the possibilities for the Church in the modern world.

Be not afraid — it has been the watchword for his papacy: not because he has obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he has lived it out himself. He is in constant pain; his hands shake with Parkinson's disease; and still he does not spare himself. The older and more frail he becomes, the more his courage shines out, and the nearer his papal service comes to being a kind of living martyrdom. The word "indomitable" springs to mind; and for m Englishman of my generation that will tend to be followed by the word "Churchillian": for surely, in the spiritual warfare of our age, this has been one of the great heroes of the faith, not merely a great warrior himself, but an inspirer in others of the virtues of courage and persistence to the end. In due course, it will he for the Church to declare if this has been the life of one of her saints: but certainly, by any human measure current among his own contemporaries, his qualifies have amounted to greatness of the highest order.

It is surely hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.

This is an edited extract from the introduction to John Paul the Great: Maker of the post-conciliar Church, edited by William Oddie and available from CTS, priced L12.99

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