John Paul II was suffering from an infection, the result of gunshot wounds inflicted by a Turkish would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, whom many believed had been acting on Communist orders. The Pope's own country, Poland, lay between political crisis and the imposition of martial law.
Karol Wojtyla, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow, was elected Pope in October 1978 by the Sacred College of Cardinals. Its members were shocked by the sudden death of John Paul 1 and mindful of the pained vacillations of the late Pope Paul VI. They sought for a different style to match the hour.
That they certainly received. John Paul II made theological conformity his watchword, insisted on priestly discipline, immersed himself in unfashionable devotion to the Virgin Mary and conducted a vigorous campaign, both public and clandestine, against Communist governments.
The end of Communism in Europe will, no doubt, go down as the enduring mark in history of this pontificate. Yet even in the hour of his vindication the Pope faced disturbing signs that the emergence of his church from opposition guaranteed neither doctrinal fidelity nor mass attendance. Indeed, there was evidence that in the exertions of the struggle against Communism, other elements of Catholic life had wanted for attention. Even in 1981, a monsignor in the Roman Curia had confided, over an excellent fish lunch, that 'everything is Poland, Poland, little is attended to, appointments go unmade, official papers unread. Thank God the Holy Father is firm on theology, for that's the glue that is holding us together.'
Since 1978, the papacy has been characterised by theological rigour and the chastisement of liberals and dissenters. Acting to restrain the Jesuit Order and the liberation theologians of Latin America, the Pope has overseen a resumption of discipline and a return to the centralised authority once questioned by the Second Vatican Council. The symbolic pillars of his reign are Cardinal Ratzinger, the guardian of doctrinal purity in the Vatican bureaucracy, the religious-political sect known as Opus Dei, and a resurgent social movement in Italy known as Communion and Liberation. His rule is infused by the tendency in modern Catholicism that is unembarrassed by relics, prophecies and miracles.
Yet in Poland itself, the church has faced tough battles over abortion and its role in the country's new democratic system. 'It was easier to fight Communism than consumerism,' said a Polish cleric recently.
While the Pope was widely quoted for his denunciation of Communism, his pronouncements against the excesses, waste and triviality of Western capitalism received considerably less publicity. His vision of a redeemed Eastern Europe was one in which a mystical pact between religion and national identity, mingling with an acute sense of social justice, would recreate the ideals of Catholic Action in the 19th century. This has signally failed to take place. The Pope has found himself making pained appeals for reason to the Christians at war in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, while the Vatican's diplomats busy themselves in the fruitless search for peace.
Within the church, he has presided over what is, in effect, a division between the First and the Third Worlds. Formed in the travails of modern Polish history, his conviction has seldom brooked dissent, nor has he any time for the complaints and doubts of some Catholics in Northern Europe and the United States.
In Ireland, a stronghold of traditional belief, the recent scandal over a bishop's private life prompted a debate on priestly celibacy. Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster spoke last week of his painful acceptance of the rule, describing the sense of personal loss he felt each time that he was called upon to unite a Catholic couple in matrimony. This issue, and the role of women in the church, are two matters upon which the Pope enjoys least unanimity among Catholics in the developed world.
The Pope regards celibacy, in his words, as 'a sign of freedom that exists for the sake of service'. He has instituted a procedure that makes it both slow and difficult for a priest to be released from his vows and to remain a practising Catholic in obedience to Rome. He remains unalterably opposed to a change in the status of women within the church, telling nuns that their 'consecration to God should be manifested in the permanent exterior sign of a simple and suitable religious garb'.
Personally devoted to the figure of the Virgin Mary, the Pope sees Catholic women in the role assigned to them throughout history, eulogising sacrifice, motherhood and a life centred on family duty. The maintenance of a priesthood composed only of men, he said, 'is not a decision about human rights nor an exclusion of women from holiness and mission in the church'.
His attitude to family planning reflects these values. He maintains the prohibition on artificial forms of contraception while calling for further research into those methods approved by the church, recommending fortitude and expressing warm concern for the problems of married couples.
Thus the church has stood still within itself while a whirlwind of events gusted around it. Its best bureaucratic minds wrestled with dramatic political developments while its theologians enjoined conformity and its pontiff preached obedience to those Catholics already practising their religion in freedom outside the dying Communist world.
The Pope himself bears visible signs of exhaustion and some within the Vatican worry whether his papacy, too, is not worn out, robbed of the principal foe that gave meaning to its style and now obliged wearily to confront the very same issues of faith, dogma and obedience that Paul VI fretted over to his deathbed in the far-off stifling August of 1978.
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