Arare secret interview in which Pope John Paul II commented on being heckled by Ian Paisley at the European Parliament in Strasbourg has been made public for the first time.
The late pontiff, speaking on October 12, 1988 – the day after the incident – explained how he managed to keep his composure during the protest in which Paisley called him the “anti-Christ”.
“Yes, I remember this episode, the clash with the Rev Paisley,” John Paul told Jas Gawronski, an Italian member of the European Parliament. “But the president of the European Parliament, Lord Plumb, had forewarned me that there would be trouble, that there would be a protest, and so there wasn’t a sense of surprise – I could give the impression of calm stoicism!” John Paul II was, at the time, warning the parliamentarians not to be indifferent to freedom in the face of Communism when Paisley entered the rear of the hall, held up a red sign with the words “John Paul II AntiChrist” painted in black, and shouted: “I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and AntiChrist.” He was quickly ejected from the meeting.
The interview, printed in full this week in the Italian daily La Stampa, mostly covers the pontiff’s reflections on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. There were already signs that the Soviet regime was beginning to collapse and it is thought that the Vatican wanted the Pope’s comments, given informally over dinner, to remain private at such a sensi tive time. John Paul reflected on Communism and Nazism after Gawronski asked why some historians regarded Stalin as a great leader, but never Hitler.
“It’s true, some maintain that in his capacity for leadership ... Stalin was greater than Hitler,” replied the Pope. “Certainly from a moral point of view, both are decisively condemnable. If Stalin could be considered better, it’s perhaps not on his own merits but simply because Communism was a programme more profound than German National Socialism.
“German Nationalism, Nazism and the fascism with which it was connected was a decisively anti-human programme and, to put it simply, superficial,” John Paul continued, adding that the Communist system was seen as one of “more justice, more social equality”. People, he said, “got used to this egalitarianism, also in countries like Poland”.
He then expressed frustration at the reluctance and inability of the Soviet people to overthrow Communism. “The Russians are different [to the Poles],” he said, adding that they were “slow” and “passive”, characteristics which “could depend on their Orthodox heritage”.
John Paul expressed high hopes for Gorbachev’s reforms. Perestroika, he said, offered people a “way out” of the system. “I don’t say it openly,” he remarked, “but I think it is significant.” The Berlin Wall fell almost exactly a year later.
Pope Benedict XVI’s summer will be remembered for the wealth of different guests he received at the papal summer residence in the Albano hills just outside Rome.
In the last of these meetings before returning to Vatican City, Pope Benedict spent four hours and dined with dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng, a meeting that some commentators have described as “amazing” and “a sensation”. The professor himself described the audience, which took place on September 24, as “extraordinary”.
A month earlier Pope Benedict met, in two separate meetings, the excommunicated Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the breakaway Society of St Pius X, and Italian-born Oriana Fallaci, the controversial, bestselling author of books highly critical of Islam.
Yet while some may be surprised at such meetings, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the 1970s, Joseph Ratzinger regularly gave homilies extolling such openness and willingness to talk. “It’s very much in his character, to be open and willing to listen, to look for points that can be shared,” said Fr Edward McNamara LC, professor of dogmatic theology at Rome’s Regina Apos tolorum Pontifical Athenaeum. “It’s probably that this aspect of his character couldn’t come out in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” Fr McNamara added: “Some may feel that such meetings are scandalous, but he’s showing us that you can speak to these people, that one shouldn’t demonise everybody because of their positions and ideas – people can have different ideas.” The crucial point, Fr McNamara continued, is that the Holy Father is trying to “find points of contact and agreement” but that when it comes to doctrine, “he won’t move an inch”.