BOOK REVIEW / What gets up the Pope's nose: 'Crossing the Threshold of Hope' - Pope John Paul II: Jonathan Cape, 9.99 pounds - Monica Furlong finds that the publication of the Pope's thoughts offers more hype than hope

Monica Furlong
Friday 21 October 1994 23:02 BST

THE publishing of the Pope's thoughts has been designed as a major publishing event; the book has been got up tastefully in white and gold, like a prayer book, and 250,000 copies sold to booksellers in Britain and Ireland, 'such' according to the blurb 'is the excitement'.

The midwife of the event is an Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori, chosen by the Vatican Press Office, and we soon grasp that the idea is to get some Catholic and Christian teaching across to us 'common folk'. Like all church leaders at present the Pope is desperate to communicate, or, in Messori's words, His Holiness is 'a shepherd who looks for every means to spread the Good News . . . In such a climate all abstractions vanish. Dogma becomes flesh, blood, life.'

But does it? Despite Messori straining every nerve to help - 'Allow me,' he gushes at one point 'to play, although respectfully, the gadfly', the Pope emerges as the master of the flat statement, the bland certainty. Metaphor, anecdotes, humour, imagination rarely trouble his style; he prefers the long pedantic plod tnrough Aristotle and Plato, St Paul, Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. The only woman the Pope mentions is Mary.

If the Christian churches are to survive their present crisis then they need to find, as the early Christians did, new language and fresh thinking.

Slapping down the old money - unity, salvation, hope, the Son of God, forgiveness - as if it is still legal tender, will not work. We bite the coin and find it counterfeit.

Nor does the Pope's personality, as it emerges in these pages, appeal. The book offers insight into a mind without light and shade, without subtlety, without a capacity to live with internal contradiction. 'Be not afraid' the Pope declares as his great message for the world, but it is precisely of personalities like his that I believe we should be afraid, people to whom, in a painfully complex world, everything is simple and obvious. Life is not 'all of a piece', we are not, as individuals 'all of a piece'. The Pope's mind has been programmed early to run on tramlines, and his adult years in the eunuch-like profession of the priesthood has deprived him of the education most of us get through sexual and family love.

In a brief passage of the book that he devotes to the vexed subject of women he claims that contemporary feminism shows 'an absence of true respect for women'. When the Gadfly asks him 'how certain decisions made by the Anglican Church have created new obstacles just when there seemed to be hope of a closer union' (that is, women's ordination), the Pope replies that 'individuals and groups . . . viewed the problem of Christian unity in too casual and superficial a way'.

On the subject of other religions he is clearly in a dilemma. In places enthusiastic about all manifestations of religion, describing them as 'concentric circles', with, of course, Catholicism at the centre, he plainly has a private tally of religions he likes and doesn't like. Judaism is his favourite, Hinduism he rather likes, Islam is fine as long as it doesn't get fundamentalist, though, of course, all of these people are just marking time until they become Christian. Buddhism really gets up his nose, however. He regards it as atheism, and he is very worried at the way Christians are taking up Buddhist forms of meditation.

There is one place in the book where suddenly, and movingly, the Pope comes alive as a human being. He is speaking of Wadowice, his home town, and the elementary school he went to, where 'at least a fourth of the pupils were Jewish. I should mention my friendship at school with one of them, Jerzy Kluger - a friendship that has lasted from my school days to the present. I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the Synagogue behind our school.' The Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis, and its people taken away to a dreadful death. Alone of his family Jerzy survived and went to see the Pope a few years ago to tell him of a plaque to be erected to commemorate that synagogue and its people. 'I must admit that in that moment we both felt a deep emotion. We saw faces of people we knew and cared for, and we recalled those Saturdays of our childhood and adolescence when the Jewish community of Wadowice gathered for prayer.'

In a moment of feeling and human warmth the Pope suddenly says far more than in his predictable thoughts and windy ambitions about 'evangelization' and 'unity'. It is the job of a Pope to pontificate - 'c'est son metier' as Voltaire said about God and forgiveness - and it may not be fair to blame him for it. But if he really wants to be heard, if Christianity still has valuable things to say - and I believe it does - then this is no way to tell either the Good News or the Bad News.

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