In the 1970s my husband, Richard West, did a lot of travelling in the Slav countries. He had been to Poland several times since the 1950s and was always struck – as was his friend Neal Ascherson – by how significant the Catholic Church remained even at the height of Communism’s power. And it so happened that he was in Poland in the autumn of 1978, when the cardinals in Rome were in conclave, in the process of choosing a new pope.
Dick was actually at a traffic junction in Warsaw when he saw a policeman directing the traffic, holding, at the same time, a radio to his ear. It must have been the moment when, after eight ballots, the college of cardinals voted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as pontiff – by 103 votes out of 109 – for the traffic cop suddenly began to weep tears of joy and jubiliation. A Polish Pope! The man – an official of Jaruzelski’s Communist regime – went on directing the traffic, went on listening to the radio, and went on weeping all at the same time.
Some in Rome were surprised at the notion of a Polish pope: and it was said that some of the Italians in the Curia did not care for the emer gence of a foreigner at the helm. After all, Italians had dominated the post since 1522. But I thought, right from the start, that Cardinal Wojtyla was perfectly right for our time. I was beginning to do a little travelling myself behind the Iron Curtain, and it was very obvious indeed that the old Soviet system was crumbling. It was even more obvious when Lech Walesa was seen leading fellow workers reciting the rosary in the Lenin shipyards at Gdansk.
Tellingly, Nicholas Garland had a brilliant cartoon in the Daily Telegraph, showing the ghost of Stalin asking: “And how many divisions has the Pope?” With an energetic, and even sporty (he was a terrific skier), young Slav Pope in the Vatican, and a declining leadership in the Kremlin, it was quite clear that the Pope’s divisions were something to be reckoned with.
And as I got to learn more about Pope John Paul II, I realised, ever more acutely, how right he was for our time. He had struggled against two odious forms of totalitarianism – Nazism and Stalinism – that had marked the mid-20th century. He was not a cloistered man, but a person who had been put to the test of personal loss. And because he had come through bad times with his integrity intact, he was the stronger for it. Yet his critique of Marxism – at a time when not a few priests were tempted by Marxist ideas – was not alchemised into a deferential attitude towards consumer capitalism. Both economic systems were based on the material world alone.
JPII would soon run into charges of being a conservative on too many issues, and indeed he was an orthodox pope. But that didn’t stop him being a radical in many ways too. His insistence on human rights was utterly in tune with the late 20th century, extending such rights to the unborn child. His bridgebuilding included a rapprochement with the Jews – “our elder brothers in faith” – even though Israel has not always been tender with Palestinian Christians.
And Pope Wojtyla proved to be a media-savvy pontiff; that, too, was very much in the spirit of our age. He travelled; he went on pilgrimages; he was not averse to the media following him about; he had some of the charisma of the pop star when he appeared, particularly during the earlier years. This, too, was very much part of the man: when young, he had been entranced by the theatre, and had been both a playwright and an actor. There was a showbiz streak in his roadshows. His wonderful gesture, in the early years, of bending down and kissing the ground when he arrived on a papal visit in a new country was a theatrical gesture – but inspirational and warm-hearted and even humble for all that.
Halfway through his pontificate, an Anglican archbishop told me a joke about an imagined conversation between the Pope and God which he had heard from a Catholic colleague. Forgive me if you have heard it before. It went like this: Pope John Paul says to the Almighty: “Will there be married priests in the Catholic Church?” “Yes,” replies the Lord, “but not in your lifetime.” “Will there be women priests in the Catholic Church?” “Yes, my son, but not in your lifetime.” “Will there be another Polish pope?” God replies: “Not in my lifetime.” A harmless enough jest in which some liberal Catholics expressed their critique of the Holy Father’s Polishness: it was too conservative, sometimes unyielding, and perceived by some as authoritarian. But I felt that Pope John Paul’s Polishness perfectly matched the needs of our time: Poland had been through torments, and had emerged as a leading Christian nation in a free world. And Karol Wojtyla was one of Poland’s proudest emblems: a strong and holy man who left us a glittering intellectual, historical and spiritual heritage.