Universal Father: a life of Pope John Paul II, by Garry O'Connor

A star who hid his light
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Pope John Paul II had been visibly flagging for so long before his death that potential biographers have lined up almost since 1981, when he was felled by an assassin's bullet in St Peter's Square. Some of those who aspired to chronicle his life, he simply outlived. Others he outlasted. In their frustration at his failure to go and meet his Maker, they were driven to publish books while John Paul was still very much alive, claiming that he had done everything significant in his pontificate and that their account was, therefore, as good as full and final. But then the wily old Polish pope would pull another surprise out of his mitre and their great works would be flawed.

Of all the contenders to produce the first posthumous biography of John Paul II, Garry O'Connor is the least likely. Known mainly as a theatrical biographer of Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness, with a penchant for kiss-and-tell seen in his life of Peggy Ashcroft, he claims no links at all with the Catholic Church. The jacket does, however, tell us that he has six children - once upon a time, a sure sign of a left-footer.

Let's start with a little reassurance for those devout souls who fear that, in such uncertain hands, anyone set on a pedestal - as John Paul has been in the coverage of his death and funeral - will inevitably be taking a tumble. There is no kiss-and-tell in Universal Father. Occasionally, O'Connor is a little seedy round the edges with his slightly too lingering accounts of the young Karol Wojtyla's friendships with women. But there's nothing in this book to send the author or reader scampering to a confessional.

The theatrical bias, though, is relevant. This biography is oddly proportioned. The 26 years of John Paul's papacy take up only 150 of 430 pages. Notes account for another 75. There are just 60 on Wojtyla's time as a priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal in Poland, skating over (inter alia) the great reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s which transformed world Catholicism. The rest is his childhood and youth in Poland, with a heavy and repeated emphasis on his love of poetry, acting and theatre.

O'Connor almost trips over himself in linking the future John Paul II with other theatrical and literary figures. One minute he is like Samuel Beckett, the next T S Eliot, the next Milton. This sounds negative. But despite its unevenness, and the apparent desire of its publishers to cash in on the Pope's death by getting it into the bookshops quicker than you can say 10 Hail Marys and a Glory Be, Universal Father is a distinctive, insightful and enjoyable book.

O'Connor's great theme is that Karol Wojtyla was forced by his unexpected election as pope in 1978 to change. Most accounts hitherto have claimed that he remained as he had always been and that, in the early days, it was Western liberals who mistook his media-friendliness for a commitment to reform.

O'Connor disagrees. The mystical, spiritual, thoughtful, inward-looking man he has so patiently teased out of his Polish background was in 1978 put in absolute charge of a global institution of 780 million members. This forced, as he puts it, a kind of goodbye to the inner man.

Not that John Paul had been some sort of unworldly monk beforehand. His clashes with the communist authorities in Poland are well rehearsed here one more time. Rather, he was a powerful, unusual, often undisciplined but never less than challenging thinker before he ascended to St Peter's throne.

Once he was in office, there was less time for reflection - although he did manage more encyclicals than any pope in recent times - and a great concentration on simply being a visible sign of unity for his flock: travelling, responding to crises, being diverted by the world's constantly changing agenda. O'Connor paints John Paul as restricted and reduced by his papacy, rather than the more usual impression that he grew in stature once on the international stage.

After so many words have been written about John Paul, this biographer manages a remarkable thing. As he builds up to the moment in 1978 when his subject emerged on to the balcony at St Peter's as Bishop of Rome, he creates a tangible expectation for the reader that this unorthodox man was going to be genuinely progressive. Yet we all know that he wasn't.

Or that only part of him was? As well as opposing the death penalty, condemning both Gulf wars and championing the Third World on a global stage, John Paul was traditional in his views on marriage, sex and homosexuality - and distrustful of democracy.

In his introduction, O'Connor promises two things. The first is that his book will be one for doubters and disbelievers. I just about qualify for the first, if not the second, and I will happily recommend it on that basis.

The second is that he will get to the inner man. That set me thinking of John Paul's spirituality, which O'Connor does indeed address at length, but through the medium of his Polish nationalism, his devotion to the Madonna of Jasna Gora, and most of all through his writing and theatrical activities. It may not be the standard approach of theology colleges, but it makes for a very good read and brings new details to a life story that is right now achingly familiar.

O'Connor is excellent, too, on context. His account of the sufferings of Poland during the Second World War forcibly brings home the strength of the inferno in which John Paul's faith and vocation took on a form they never lost. Again it has been said before, but never so eloquently and in such powerful detail.

There are times when the author's taste for speculative psychobabble irritates. "Although Karol did not fear his father unduly," he writes, "he could well have felt, in the formation of spirit and character, that strength built on fear had nothing wrong or bad about it." Hence, no doubt, his handling of dissent when pope can be blamed on his dad.

This is a small complaint, though, next to O'Connor's principal achievement. Taking a subject outside his usual remit, someone who has been extensively written about and analysed, he manages to convey a freshness and reverent iconoclasm in his portrait of John Paul that is strong enough to survive even juxtaposition with the rush of obituaries.

O'Connor may not, finally, convince the reader that he has absolutely captured his subject, but he certainly has provided much more substance for debate than the premature and shrill calls for John Paul to be instantly labelled "the Great" and made into a saint.

Peter Stanford's biography of Cardinal Hume is published by Continuum

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