There is no substitute for the living presence, the inclination of the head, the meeting of the eyes, the idiosyncratic gesture, the tone of voice. I first met Pope John Paul II privately in his halcyon days. It was a gray morning in December 1987, and I had attended Mass in his private chapel.
Accompanied by his secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, a Polish priest with soft gestures and undulant step, John Paul appeared in the library of the papal apartment as if he had all the time in the world. He looked utterly centered in himself.
I noticed that his cassock was a little worn and off-white, a comfortable favorite for early mornings. He gave the impression of being equally comfortable and settled in his papacy. He was wearing a gleaming gold watch that flashed, like his pectoral cross, in the strong arc lamps. He wore a pair of stiff, shiny, fashionable tan casuals; they seemed to me, at first, incongruous, unclerical. Previous popes in this modern era had floated on felt-soled scarlet slippers.
He studied me with narrowed eyes, dragging those feet in sturdy shoes along the marble floor, somewhat pigeon-toed. "Stas" Dziwisz, the "velvet power" in the papal apartment, was whispering something in his ear. Then he was next to me, deeply stooped and hugely broad-shouldered, his legs a little apart like a hill-walker steadying himself. There was a discreet hint of peppermint and aftershave: I understood he liked Fisherman's Friend lozenges for his throat, and dabbed Penhaligon Eau de Cologne on his well-shaved jowls. His silver-white hair was inexpertly cut and slightly tousled. His familiar face, the most famous face in the world, looked drained, exhausted, as if he had not slept. Cinematically handsome from afar, he appeared, eminently, human up close. If he was a mystic, as many of his biographers claim, I sensed no numinous aura.
He inclined a large Slavonic left ear, inviting me to speak. His hand went out; as I grasped it and wondered whether I should kiss his ring, he managed to clutch my arm and push it away at the same time. His great square head went down until his chin was buried in his chest; then the eye opened, a steely knowing eye, scrutinizing me sideways. He was waiting for me to say something. I caught a sudden impression of the Niagara of sycophancy, persuasion, and petition that poured into that ear day by day. Then he turned full face on--a wide, fatherly, frank face. He began to speak, pointing his forefinger at me.
That first impression was of a man who was at once recollected and yet dauntingly observant; kindly, yet capable of stern authority. I sensed an unassailable integrity and openness, and yet there was something cunning, a peasant craftiness about the way he nailed you sideways with that eye when you least expected it. Above all, in that Vatican milieu of fleshy celibates, whose ambience was cushioned offices and plump prayer stools, he came across as a plain man who set no store by decorous niceties; an unaffected, integrated, informal, utterly human person.
His informality, setting him apart from a generation of prelates who stood on ceremonial and ecclesiastical dignity, was captured in another first encounter I had heard about.
The late Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool, was serving on a bishops' commission in Rome with Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, as John Paul then was in the early 1970s. One morning, according to Worlock, Wojtyla arrived late, soaked, having walked through driving rain across Rome, eschewing the use of the chauffeur-driven car to which he was entitled. Without the least embarrassment, as the assembled bishops and cardinals looked on, he first took off his shoes, then his sodden socks. Standing in bare feet, he squeezed out the water on the floor, placing the socks over a radiator to dry. Then he turned and said to the amazed prelates: "Well, gentlemen! Let's get on with it."
In his presence there is a sense of fathomless seriousness, a hint of inconsolable melancholy even. And yet you see in those intelligent, watchful eyes a ready sense of life's ridiculousness, held firmly in check. In the atmosphere of adulation that surrounds him, his minor jests are greeted with collapsing paroxysms of mirth, as when he said to Mayor Koch in New York: "You are the mayor. I must be careful to be a good citizen!" Rarely reported are his more outrageous pranks, aided by his thespian gifts. A Vatican monsignor who was in attendance on the Pope for some years told me the following revealing story:
One morning, John Paul gave an audience to a phalanx of German visitors, theologians, bishops, and VIPs. They were extremely formal and uptight, typically German. After I had shown them out of the audience room, I went back in to take my leave of the Pope. He looked me fiercely in the eye, stood ramrod straight, clicked his heels, and gave a barely perceptible but quite unmistakable little Nazi salute with a slightest gesture of the hand. It was hilarious: the Polish Supreme Pontiff sending up the Krauts! I was fit to burst out loud. Instead, insanely, I forgot myself and decided to turn the joke on him. So I gave him a look of horror, my hands on my cheeks, as if to rebuke him--as if to say: "Oh you naughty, Holy Father! What would the Germans make of your little charade?" His face darkened instantly and terrifyingly. His eyes were blazing with anger. But at that moment Ratzinger, another German, swept into the room and I had to shut the doors on them, giggling nervously to myself. Later that day, John Paul and I were alone again. He turned on me, furious, and hit me hard on the arm. It actually hurt. "I was just trying to encourage you!" he said. "Didn't you understand? I was encouraging you!" It was an odd phrase to use in English. But I understood what he meant. He meant that he was trying to amuse me or liven me up for the day. I stood there, fit to cry, because I loved him so much and I could see that I had offended him deeply. But how could I tell him that of course I had been "encouraged," that I was just engaged in a little lighthearted irony in return? I just had to let it go, leaving him to think that I was a sanctimonious, humorless idiot.
Whatever the character of the man who becomes pope, the papal role, in time, begins to take over the human being, the personality of the individual elected to the strangest, most impossible and isolating job on earth. Paul VI, Pope in the 1960s and 1970s, described the isolation thus: "I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. Hence the dizziness, the vertigo. Like a statue on a plinth--that is how I live now."
We will never know the solitude, the psychological fragmentation, the inner sufferings that have afflicted John Paul in consequence of his papal office. But there are clues. Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge church historian, relates a story told him by a theologian friend who had been invited to dinner with John Paul II in the days when young priests were invited regularly to the papal table. This friend found himself sitting next to John Paul and decided to strike up a personal conversation rather than try to find something arresting or important to say.
He said: "Holy Father, I love poetry and I've read all your verse. Have you written much poetry since you became Pope?" To which the Pope said: "I've written no poetry since I became Pope." So the theologian said: "Well, why is that, Holy Father?" The Pope cut him dead, turning to the person on his other side.
Twenty minutes later, John Paul turned to the theologian and said curtly: "No context!" That was all.
As the dinner party broke up and the guests were departing, Duffy's friend, on taking his leave, said somewhat rashly: "Holy Father, when I pray for you now, I'll pray for a poet without context." The Pope did not respond. He just froze.
John Paul clearly felt that he had laid bare a very private part of his life. But he had imparted a tragic truth perhaps. The papal office takes over the whole person. That is what the job demands. When he said there was no "context" for poetry, he seemed to be acknowledging that in the depths of his soul, deep down where the poetry is written, there lies a terrible, vertiginous solitude.
There are many millions who have never met the Pope in the flesh but who have encountered him in their dreams. Graham Greene, toward the end of his life the most famous Catholic writer in the world, had been a friend of Pope Paul VI, who had read all Greene's books and admired them. But Greene never received a call to meet with John Paul II. When I talked with Greene not long before he died, he told me: "I dream about John Paul II. There is a recurrent dream. I am in St. Peter's Square and there are tens of thousands of people, nuns and priests and laypeople. They are all groveling on their knees, venerating him in the most repulsive fashion. And he is in their midst dispensing communion from a huge ciborium. Only, he is not dispensing the communion bread but ornate, overrich Italian chocolates." And there was another dream: "I am sitting on my balcony in Antibes having breakfast. I open up the newspaper and there's this headline: 'John Paul Canonizes Jesus Christ.' I sit there, astounded that this pope could be so arrogant as to make a saint of our Savior." Then Greene said, as if he had got to the bottom of John Paul's character: "He had a lot in common with Ronald Reagan. They were both world leaders who were in fact just actors."
Greene's antipathy toward John Paul, encapsulated in those dreams, represents a familiar reaction among many sophisticated, liberal Catholics: John Paul arrogant and autocratic, patting the heads of the faithful, John Paul obsessed with saint-making, John Paul acting a part. One wonders, though, how Greene, with his novelist's antennae, might have judged John Paul had he actually met him in the flesh.
Not everyone was bowled over by John Paul; and John Paul, we are told, could shut a person out, totally and finally, when he felt that his interlocutor was behaving inappropriately. On my second private meeting with him, I too dared to ask him about his creative writing. His response was to feign deafness. I asked again, and he pointedly made an unrelated observation in order to change the subject.
But the inescapable reaction of those who have had dealings with him, person to person, and this was certainly my own impression, is dynamic paradox and contradiction. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, the philosopher who worked with him on his book Acting Person
in the 1970s, was probably in love with him. Sexually attractive, subtle, with great force of character, she spent hundreds of hours with him, sometimes with his secretary present, but often alone. She was under no illusions about John Paul's foibles; her percipient description of his character, given in an interview with Marco Politi and Carl Bernstein, is as memorable as it is moving:
He has developed in himself an attitude of modesty, a very solicitous way of approaching people. He makes a person feel there is nothing else on his mind, that he is ready to do everything for the other person. Owing to his innate personal charm, which is one of his great weapons, he has in addition a poetical nature, a captivating way of dealing with people. These are all evidences of his charisma--even the way in which he moves, though it is no more now that he is an old gentleman. He had a way of moving, a way of smiling, a way of looking around that was different and exceedingly personal. It had a beauty about it.
Yet, Dr. Tymieniecka went on to say: "If there is one trait of character which I can observe in him it is love of contradiction." She says: "People around him see the sweetest, most modest person." Then she adds: "He is by no means as humble as he appears. Neither is he modest. He thinks about himself very highly, very adequately . . . This is an extremely multifaceted human being, extremely colorful."
Like a moth to a flame, the boy Karol Wojtyla was drawn irresistibly to theatre. From the age of eight, tall for his age and plump in the face, he was stagestruck: running errands for an amateur dramatic society, helping to build stage sets, aspiring to be a prompter. At home, alone in the privacy of his bedroom, he performed another kind of playacting: priestly rituals in make-believe vestments sewn by his seamstress mother, Emilia. When his brother, Edmund, fourteen years his senior, became a doctor, Karol solo-acted scenes for the patients in the hospital wards. By the time he left school, Karol had directed and acted in ten productions, invariably in the lead role.
He had a taste for patriotic drama, statuesque postures, and grandiloquent bardic monologues. Years later, Wojtyla would declare that the tradition of Polish drama puts Shakespeare in the shade. Polish theatre, he explained, preserved the existence of the nation through all the annexations and occupations inflicted by barbarous neighbors. The Catholic Faith and Polish drama blended indistinguishably: Liturgy, pilgrimage, theatre had greater reality and power than the ebb and flow of armies and dictators. And the fount and origin of Polish nationhood was the motherhood of the Virgin Mary. For Catholic Poles, history was not shaped by the vanity of human ambitions but by Mary's intercessions and miraculous initiatives.
And yet, as with all patriotism and nationalism, there are continuities with xenophobia and ethnic hatreds, as Poland's Jews could confirm. There is no doubting Karol Wojtyla's ease with the Jewish community in the town of his birth. His home in Wadowice was owned by Jews; his best friend, Jerzy Kluger, was a Jew, and Karol could bandy Yiddish with Jewish kids on the street. But it was Cardinal Hlond, Catholic primate of all Poland, who declared in 1936, when Karol Wojtyla was sixteen and Hitler's Reich was but three years in existence: "There will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain."
Nor were the Poles unknown to execute preemptive military strikes. In 1920, three months after Karol Wojtyla was born, in a bid to form an empire that would take in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Lithuania, Poland took on the Red Army. To be sure, Poland had much to fear from Russia and its satellites. Lenin had stated: "The path to world conflagration passes over the corpse of Poland." Tearing up the Versailles settlements following the end of the Great War, Poland's military dictator, Jozef Pilsudski, seized the great city of Kiev from the Bolsheviks. In retaliation Lenin ordered the invasion of Poland, bringing four massive armies to the gates of Warsaw, outnumbering the Polish army virtually three to one. A call went out from every pulpit rallying Polish manhood to the defense of the native soil. The Poles were weary, and many of her soldiers were no more than children and went barefoot. But the blood of the nation was up. On the day after the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 16, 1920, the Red Army was routed in an orgy of carnage on the banks of the Vistula River. Some 15,000 Russians were slaughtered and 65,000 taken prisoner. A further 30,000 fled across the nearest border into Prussia and were disarmed. The victory was owed in popular imagination neither to the courage of the citizen army nor to Pilsudski's tactics, which were as brilliant as they were bold, but to the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary. She would be accorded credit for stopping the sweep of atheistic communism into the West. The battle was to be known in future years as the Miracle of the Vistula. Patriotism and religious fervor, piety and violence, were at fever pitch.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Pontiff in Winter by John Cornwell. Copyright © 2005 by John Cornwell. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.