Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy in October 1978, a little more than half my life ago. I heard the news in Thai, from a radio playing in a little curry shop along the Charoen Krung Road in Bangkok. My Thai was not very good, and the name was pronounced oddly and tonally, but I recognized it because the announcer stressed that the new pope was from Poland. That could only be Wojtyla—and the Polish cardinal was already among the men I admired.
Although at second hand. I had then not read a word by him, but I was aware of his reputation from my interest in the Cold War. I had only recently been called to become a Christian myself. I was familiar with people and publications associated with Keston College in England, which did brave work in documenting the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. I knew that Wojtyla was not only a bold and charismatic leader for the Catholics in Poland (Catholics being for me, then, still an alien tribe), but that he impressed fine minds not even Catholic, as a fine mind both literary and philosophical. As an author he was already in my pocket list of “books sought.” (“Anything by Karol Wojtyla.”)
But I was now traveling far away from big libraries and the beloved second-hand book stalls of London’s Charing Cross Road. Years would pass before I was able to make that intimate acquaintance we can only make—if we cannot know a man directly—by being alone with what he writes. Eventually, I discovered a man I should have wanted to read, whether or not he ever became pope.
It was tragic, in one sense. Should I have become fully conversant with Wojtyla’s theology of the body in earlier life, I think it might have changed, unquestionably for the better, unexamined assumptions I carried on the nature of the sexes, on women generally, and on the possibilities of family life. For, strangely enough, this “elderly and querulous celibate,” as Christopher Hitchens called him—this man who lost his own mother at the age of eight—understood women better than most married men and respected them with a profundity possible only to a man of “philosophical” mind (using that word in its old sense of “wisdom-loving”).
Here is a double mystery. The first has to do with reputation. In some way we can know that a man has greatness in him, even without knowing anything more about him. We learn this only from who speaks about him, and how they speak. The second is the limitation upon this: that the knowledge can be of no use until we act upon it. To know there is a teacher is only an opportunity; we must go and seek him out—knock and it shall be answered. And this Wojtyla, this philosopher as I shall insist on calling him, knew something that was shared with Plato and Aristotle and was at the center of their enterprise. He knew that philosophy is irreducibly personal. His theology of the body reiterates that; it tells us there is nothing in the personal that is not important. It taught me, finally, that sex is not an unimportant thing.
While he was a bishop for half a century, the late pope’s formation in “fatherhood” was accomplished chiefly as a playwright and as a parish priest. We learn this from his own memoirs, scattered in such books as Gift and Mystery. As playwright, he was already endowed with the gift of seeing into the hearts of men; as parish priest, he developed this gift through listening. As thinker, throughout his life, he built a very Catholic philosophy to recover the personal from deep within the totalitarianisms of late modern and postmodern life. More than any man in our time, he revived Catholic humanism.
What I did not know, sitting in that curry shop, was that the news on the radio was personal to me.