For the travelling Pope, who for 15 years has commanded the attention of the world's statesmen and headline writers with a charisma unrivalled by any of his recent predecessors, is today dramatically out of step with his flock and preparing for what may well be a last battle to assert his authority.
Now aged 73 and recovering from the removal of a tumour the size of an orange from his colon last summer, he is preparing to release this autumn an encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, which, if leaks are to be believed, tells those who disagree with him that they may no longer call themselves Catholics.
Yet the harder he tries to stamp out the flames, the fiercer grows the fire. News of the document unleashed a chorus of protest from progressive theologians. 'The Church needs its own equivalent of the students' uprising of 1968,' said Professor Norbert Greinacher of Tubingen University in Germany last week.
Not only are individual Catholics making their own minds up on issues such as contraception, remarriage and homosexuality, but priests, bishops, theologians and even cardinals are publicly and privately questioning the papal line. Far from uniting Catholics behind a single set of beliefs, as has been the Pope's stated mission since his election in 1978, he has presided over a fragmentation.
An opinion poll, published on the eve of his visit to the United States last week, revealed the abyss between America's 59 million Catholics and their leader. According to the survey, 84 per cent opposed the Vatican's ban on the Pill. Almost 60 per cent think you can divorce and remarry without the Church's sanction. Even on abortion, once the keystone of orthodoxy, 58 per cent rejected a total ban.
In Western Europe, too, Catholics are ignoring the Pope's holy writ and following their own consciences. In the past those who disagreed with Rome would have felt obliged to accept exile from the bosom of Mother Church, but now they are continuing to attend mass, receive communion and take their chances come Judgement Day. A silent schism has opened up in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
Yet free-thinking Catholics cannot dismiss the Pope as a figure of no authority, irrelevant and overtaken by events. This same Pope who so often appears the arch-traditionalist dons the mantle of a revolutionary when he tackles Western governments over their greed and self-seeking - as when, for example, he took an outspoken stance against the Gulf war in 1991.
He has won admiration with a series of radical pronouncements on social, economic and political matters. Beginning with Laborem Exer cens in 1981, with its advocacy of workers' rights, he has attempted to outline a via media between the excesses of capitalism and Communism, and has reserved his harshest condemnations for consumerism. He has championed the cause of the Palestinians, appointing one of their own as Patriarch of Jerusalem, much to the dismay of the Israeli government. And he provided the spark in his native Poland that ignited the revolutions in Eastern Europe.
THIS paradoxical Pope was born Karol Wojtyla on 18 May 1920 in the rural Polish town of Wadowice, not far from the border with what was then Czechoslovakia. His mother, a schoolteacher, died when he was six. Never again has he allowed a woman to get close to him. His particular devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his disdain for those who campaign for women to be given a more fulfilling role in the Church than arranging the flowers on the altar, may well be a legacy of such maternal deprivation.
'Karol simply did not spend any time on getting a steady girlfriend,' recalled a classmate, Jerzy Kluger. 'His studies took up all his energies. He knew more and studied more than anyone else did. For example, he used to read pure philosophy, which was not even taught at school. He came out top in every subject.' And in sports: he kept goal for the school football team, skied and played a mean game of table tennis. Even when he was long past retirement age he would set off on long solitary hikes in the north Italian mountains.
Karol's formative years were hard and lonely. The Wojtylas were poor and suffered more than their share of sorrows. His sister had died before young Karol was born. When he was 10, his brother Edmund fell victim to scarlet fever. The death of his father, a retired army quartermaster, when the future Pope was just 20, left him all alone. He learnt early to fight his own battles.
During the war the Pope worked in a quarry, smashing limestone rocks for a local chemical factory. He joined the underground and ended up on a Gestapo hit-list for helping Jews to escape. He began to study theology and within a year of the liberation of Krakow was ordained. After two years in France and Rome, he returned to run a city-centre parish in Krakow and, at the age of 38, became the youngest bishop in Poland. He combined his pastoral work with academia, the populist and the intellectual in him developing simultaneously. He held the chair in ethics at Lublin, the only Catholic university allowed by the Communists to operate in Eastern Europe.
The Pope made a rare excursion from Poland in 1962 to attend the Second Vatican Council which, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, saw the Catholic Church come to terms with the modern world and abandon its self-imposed exile in a cloud of musty medievalism and prejudice. Bishop Wojtyla was, by all accounts, an enthusiastic supporter of reform. In 1964 he was named Archbishop of Krakow and in 1967 became a cardinal.
Until he was 58, the Pope had only limited contact with the world outside Poland. His outlook has inevitably been shaped by its authoritarian, muscular Christianity and by the constant struggle against godless Marxism. Pluralism and open dissent were foreign concepts, democracy a distant ideal.
No one who took part in the papal election of August 1978 has provided a credible explanation as to how he ended up as Pope. To describe the Pope as a rank outsider would be to give the false impression that his name even figured in the odds. Some cardinals who took part in the ballot in the Sistine Chapel can only put their collective decision down to the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
He was the first non-Italian Pope since the Dutchman Hadrian VI in 1523, the youngest holder of the office for 130 years, and the first ever Slav Pope. Straight away, he made clear his intention to cut a dash on the world stage.
Such a spectacular and sustained break with tradition inevitably created expectations that the Church was witnessing the dawn of a new era, with the Pope cast as the champion of renewal. But with the Polish Pope, the man and the message are not the same. Although he smiles for the cameras, speaks not in Latin but in soundbites, and makes copious use of the jet engine, he believes that what the Church needs most is a period of retrenchment. Those, such as the banned Swiss theologian Hans Kung, who accuse the Pope of putting the clock back on reform, overstate their case. He has stopped the clock. Time is standing still in the Catholic Church. Over the contentious issues that divide his flock, the Pope's message has rung out with all the monotony of the Angelus bell: no change.
It took many Catholics quite a time to see this. As the Pope jetted off around the globe to visit his farflung flock of 900 million souls, they mistook movement for progress. He may have come to meet them, but he was not listening to what they said. And when he sensed 'trouble with the natives', as when the Latin American Church dabbled in the Marxism that he grew to loathe in his native country, he was quick to crack down.
The experience of having travelled to more than 50 different lands does not seem to have altered what he decided long ago in Poland. Having witnessed the many different challenges facing the Church on five continents, he seems unwilling to allow his men on the ground the latitude to decide how to tackle the situations they face daily. Rome must give the orders.
Even within the Vatican, the Pope's world has a closed quality. He has made little effort to get to know all the bishops and cardinals of the Church's burgeoning bureaucracy and instead spends most of his time in the papal apartments, served by a group of Polish nuns who prepare him Polish food while he discusses policy with a group of advisers known in Curia (papal court) circles as the 'Polish mafia'.
THE PAPAL agenda for bringing unity of belief and purpose to the universal church has a notable idealistic dimension to it. On almost every visit he has made, the Pope has raised the issue of contraception. While only the foolhardy would pretend that freely available birth control would solve the problems of the Third World overnight, the Pope's stubborn refusal to face the threat posed by overpopulation, Aids and poverty has driven many - including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made an outspoken attack in 1992, on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit - to exasperation.
George Carey's candour on that occasion was a tacit admission that hopes that one day the Church of England might reunite with Rome are vain. The Pope is not prepared to compromise Catholic doctrine in the cause of ecumenism, and since the General Synod decided to give the go-ahead to the ordination of women priests he has written the Anglicans off as misguided heretics.
While the Pope is flying back from America and putting the finishing touches to his autumn encyclical, speculation has already begun as to who will succeed him. Favourite candidate of the liberal wing is the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Martini has the right passport (the experiment of having a non-Italian in charge has not been judged a success), and his attempts to appear more understanding of the realities of everyday life have won him support. More conservative forces are said to favour the former Vatican ambassador in Washington, Cardinal Pio Laghi, doctrinally hard-line but with a diplomat's knack of disguising an iron fist in a velvet glove.
The Pope himself has given no indication of whom he prefers. But, as was apparent in Denver last week, the steely will that saw him endure the hardships of childhood, back-breaking work in a stone quarry, and every attack and insult that the Nazis and the Communists could throw at him, is still present in that tired body. He isn't prepared to throw in the towel just yet. Neither, though, are his opponents. They will neither shut up nor leave. The Church, they are determined, is bigger than one man.
The author was editor of the 'Catholic Herald' and is author of 'Cardinal Hume and the Changing Face of English Catholicism'.
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