Common Wisdom: The Pope and I

First, a confession. I have never been enthusiastic  about the pope. The office, yes. Scriptural proof validating the commissioning of Peter, and the lengthy Petrine succession aside, it amazes me that anyone could question papal authority. To paraphrase Voltaire, if it hadn’t been instituted, it would have had to be invented. But an omniscient God took steps to avert confusion among His followers, establishing one point of reference, one shepherd to lead. Without a visible head, we would obviously splinter into bewildered, contentious factions which, of course, subsequently happened to those dissociating themselves from Peter. Regretfully, one needs now to include closet dissenters, nominal Catholics in the Church who nevertheless duck direction from Rome. These are people who regard the pope as a figurehead, a colorful remnant of times gone by. Unsurprisingly, the Vatican remains a priority for them in terms of art and architecture and, if one’s travels coincide with a balcony appearance by the Holy Father, so much the better in the era of the zoom lens. For many, it is analogous to sighting a royal at Buckingham Palace.

I’m sure I would never make that reductio, but until a recent change of heart about the pope, wild horses could not drag me to a crowded St. Peter’s Square. I am one whose blood runs cold at pictures of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Zeal for Catholicism notwithstanding, it would require serious sedation before I could be sandwiched between the faithful and the curious in a throng awaiting a glimpse of the Holy Father. I’ve always held the papacy in high esteem because I found it eminently sensible and its establishment biblically impossible to deny. Nevertheless, until the advent of John Paul II, I felt no personal connection to the man beneath the tiara.

As a student, various papal countenances gazed down at me from classroom walls. They seemed as remote as Tutankhamen. Periodically I had to defend Vatican opulence and the lavish pageantry of papal processions, which nettled Protestant friends. I wished ardently that the pope would content himself with issuing occasional pronouncements and voluntarily remain a prisoner of the Vatican. If I gave him much thought at all, Pius XII impressed me as aristocratic, reserved, and unapproachable. Suddenly, in 1958, there burst on the scene the beaming presence of John XXIII, whose ubiquitous bonhomie disturbed me as slightly indecorous. I found him, mea culpa, a bit too jolly for the job. We had gone from too cold to too hot. Protestants previously abusing me about the Holy Father, however, roared approval about this genial pontiff and promptly misinterpreted aggiornamento (along with not a few Catholics) as altering and generally attenuating the magisterium with a view toward ecumenism.

Geographically and emotionally distanced from Rome, I continued respectful detachment until October 16, 1978, when I heard the astonishing news that a Pole had been elected. Though not a single Polish corpuscle flows through my veins, I recall thinking hooray! It’s about time! I thought then to resume my former posture. I thought wrong. I was catapulted into full-blown fascination with Pope John Paul II by no extraordinary means, which makes it the more extraordinary. I neither visited the Vatican nor had a papal audience. It was mere media exposure. Simply watching his face, hearing that distinctive voice in its inflected English, perceiving the penetrating insight and poetic nature of this Polish Peter profoundly moved me. My attitudinal shift was augmented by his outspoken recognition of the need for restoration of uncompromising orthodoxy among his flock: bishops, seminarians, catechists. Not to mention his concern and counsel about liturgy. If I didn’t know some Vatican subordinate might throw it away, I would write the Holy Father a mash note.

Why? John Paul II doesn’t even look like my concept of Jesus. He is too solid, too bulky. Why do I feel a connection to this particular pope?

Several images provide the answer. First, there is his searing intensity, a visible clue to interior depth. There is what one can only call passion, as this stocky bear of a man leans his forehead upon the delicate sliver of the crucifix he carries, as if it were a lifeline. There is in the gesture such naked witness to belief, to trust, to supplication. It rivets the observer, it defies indifference. The camera pries, an intruder between this man and his God. But his spiritual serenity is not derailed by cameras or congregations. Aware of thousands at the Masses he celebrates, he retains a certain solitude, consumed by contemplation. He is as transfixed by his focus as I am by him. It is a lesson in meditation.

Because of his office, because of the Vatican, John Paul II is surrounded by some of the world’s greatest art. Yet there is the scene, indelibly etched in my mind, of this same man sitting in a spartan Roman jail, huddled with the assassin who would have taken his life. We talk about forgiveness, dutifully instructing the Lord to forgive us inasmuch as we forgive others. Noble paradigm, difficult praxis. It distressed me that the pope was actually going to visit a man who meant to kill him. Then I saw the film. It was not so much what John Paul did as what he did not do. There was no fanfare, no attempt at theatrics. Paradoxically he, the victim, comported himself as if he carried the sin: his head was bowed, his expression sorrowful. It was eloquent, and it defused the anger of a woman in California.

There are countless examples of his patience. He has exposed himself again and again to the slings and arrows of the outraged. He was told off, or so she thought, by an aggrieved member of the fold right here in San Francisco’s cathedral. Elsewhere he has not shielded himself from what could be called disheartening encounters with clergy and laity not experienced by popes in my memory. He is also aware of published criticism and mutterings behind closed doors. Because he is a human being, he is as vulnerable as are we, but how much more painful for him because of Who he represents. Complaints and periodic abuse must weigh heavily even upon his strong shoulders. After all, ultimately he is alone. The layman ventilates to the priest, the priest to the bishop, and so on up the hierarchical ladder. There is always some greater authority to which one can appeal for support, consolation, redress. When the pope is troubled, he must prayerfully look for answers in his own mirror. What terrible joy to be Vicar of Christ.

Most persuasive perhaps in garnering my attention and affection is John Paul’s repeated, spontaneous display of love. Kissing babies is de rigueur for Americans seeking political office and always strikes a false note. What is arresting in myriad pictures of the Holy Father with children is a look which radiates genuine love. It is easy to love one’s own child; how about managing it for the child next door? A stranger? Most of us have limits; this pope operates under no such handicap. In California there was a poignant moment when an armless young man played beautiful guitar with his toes and the Holy Father rose from his chair at the end of the performance to embrace the musician.

But it wasn’t even that communion which put me forever in his corner. What did was an accident, occurring as he left a grammar school in Los Angeles. He had spoken to the children, then turned to leave the cheering assembly. The camera discovered an older student, maybe 12 or 13, not exuberant but staring at the pope in obvious distress. Tears welled in her dark eyes as he approached, still smiling and waving to the excited children. Impulsively, as he passed her, the girl cast inhibition aside and flung herself upon him. She was like a child, begging a parent not to leave, a lover beseeching the beloved to stay. What astonished witnesses was his reaction: he gave himself totally to her pain. He folded his arms about her in what was no hurried hug. There was no sign of impatience, no checking his watch. The tight schedule lost priority. As if he had all the time in the world, this leader of 864 million Catholics not only returned her embrace but tenderly rocked her to and fro, comforting her misery. I recognized this sweet, generous act. It is recorded many times in the New Testament. Here, indeed, was an alter Christus.

The papacy has flourished in my lifetime with my fealty if not my feelings. Do feelings matter? Encountering a pope who engages my heart as well as my head cannot add any prestige to that sublime office. It will not be noted on any Vatican agenda. But I am convinced that, if he knew I cared, this busy, burdened pope would rejoice in my love. Which, when I pray, I am bold enough to believe is true of Christ Himself, made visible in the world today with unique clarity through the wondrous stewardship of Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.



B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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