Pope John Paul II and the Church

By Peter Hebblethwaite | Go to book overview

20
The Roman pope is still a Pole

( October 16, 1981) Any assessment of the first three years of Pope John Paul's pontificate has to reckon with "the Polish factor." Apart from two years of study in Rome ( 1946-48), he spent his first 58 years in Poland. Even when, as bishop and cardinal, he began to travel, his first call was always on Polish communities in exile. Despite his mastery of an astonishing number of languages -- and his cheerful readiness to tackle new ones -- he is in no sense "cosmopolitan" and remains defiantly Polish. So far, so obvious.

The difficulty lies in saying how this Polishness affects his pontificate. The temptation is to equate Polishness and conservatism (in church matters) and leave it at that. But being Polish is not just a blinkered limitation; it provides a different perspective on the world from which we can all learn something.

Certainly Polish national consciousness is highly developed, so much so that a character in Kazimierz Brandys' novel, A Question of Identity, remarks that many of his compatriots behave "as if the individual in Poland had no psychology of his own, as if there were only a national psychology." That is nonsense, of course. There must be no question of reducing Karol Wojtyla to a specimen Pole. But anyone who wishes to understand him must start here.

John Paul has made this easier by talking about his past. He has evoked memories that explain his current attitudes. I want to describe some of those experiences here: they are material toward the intellectual autobiography he will probably never now write.

The first experience was that of defeat, in 1939, and the Nazi occupation which followed. It changed his life. It turned the poetrywriting, would-be actor into an intellectual priest of steely determination. In Brazil John Paul traced the start of his vocation to this wartime experience. The horrors he witnessed convinced him that only spiritual remedies could overcome them.

So whenever John Paul echoes the language of Jacques Maritain and talks about "the primacy of the spiritual" (to the annoyance or despair of liberation theologians), he is referring to this fundamental experience.

-74-

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