Magazine article The New Yorker

JOHN PAUL II; COMMENT Series: 1/4

Magazine article The New Yorker

JOHN PAUL II; COMMENT Series: 1/4

Article excerpt

Karol Wojtyla, a poet, actor, and playwright, who had been a bishop in Poland for twenty years, was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals on October 16, 1978. Shortly afterward, Yuri Andropov, the head of Soviet intelligence, called the K.G.B.'s station chief in Warsaw and asked furiously, "How could you have allowed a citizen of a Socialist country to be elected Pope?" The Warsaw rezident, who, during his time in Poland, had developed a knowledge of at least the rudiments of Church procedure, reportedly told Andropov that he would do better to direct his inquiries to Rome.

Andropov's anxiety was existential and well founded. As a defender of the Soviet faith, Andropov had previously directed the expulsion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Russia as a threat to the stability of the Union. Now he ordered the First Chief Directorate of the K.G.B. to analyze the potential of a new threat, who had given himself the name John Paul II. According to the Pope's biographer George Weigel, the hurried analysis by Soviet intelligence determined that Wojtyla's election had been backed by a German-American conspiracy led by, among others, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national-security adviser. Their goal, the document said, was nothing less than the undermining of the Communist regime in Poland and the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites--an analysis as preposterous as it was prescient.

John Paul's reign has been so long, and last week's vigil so filled with the imagery of raw human suffering--his last, mute appearance at his window, the increasingly dire bulletins--that it was difficult to bring into focus the extraordinary and vital images of the first days of his papacy, days that helped to re-order the world. Not long after his ascension to the Chair of St. Peter, the Pope declared that he would make a "pilgrimage" to Poland--an event that the Communist Party in Warsaw anticipated with dread. To counteract what it knew would be the destabilizing impact of the visit, the Party sent out a desperate, secret memorandum to the nation's schoolteachers:

The Pope is our enemy. . . . Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, [he] puts on a highlander's hat, shakes all hands, kisses children, etc. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns. . . . Because of the activities of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop. . . . In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford sentiments.

John Paul, who, in 1941, as a young man had seen his parish priests arrested by the Gestapo, and the Polish Church subjugated to Moscow after the Second World War, had come into his papacy telling all who would listen, "Be not afraid!" As Andropov understood, in his own paranoid way, this was a message as potentially subversive as Solzhenitsyn's "Live not by the lie!" When John Paul's Alitalia 727, named Citta di Bergamo, landed in Warsaw on the morning of June 2, 1979, his reception from the Polish people was as fearless as his own unmistakable message, couched in theological language, that the Polish nation's "voluntary collaboration" with the Soviet empire could not continue. Over nine days, John Paul spoke to and performed Mass in front of millions in Warsaw, Krakow, Gniezno, Czestochowa, and the village of Os[acute]wiecim, the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The reception, as Weigel writes in his book "Witness to Hope," was so profoundly emotional, and so obviously political, that during his homily at Jasna Gora, at the shrine of the Black Madonna in the Silesian Basin, the Pope interrupted himself and jokingly wondered what the Italian priests in his entourage must be thinking: "What are we going to do with this Polish Pope, this Slavic Pope? …

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