My Visit With the Pope

My Visit With the Pope

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 15 1998 3:30 AM

My Visit With the Pope

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ROME--Outside the Vatican walls, it's popular to speculate on who the next pope might be. But from what I've seen inside, the job is still very much occupied.

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Before he received me and my family yesterday evening, John Paul II had endured a normally busy day. At age 78, in the 20th year of his papacy, he still rose at 5:30, prayed an hour, said mass for staff and guests, and breakfasted with several of the more than 200 bishops from Asia who have been assembled here the past month for a wide-ranging synod. Then he sat 90 minutes in the broiling midday sun for his weekly "general audience," a chance for anyone to see and hear him.

Weather permitting, general audiences have moved outdoors to St. Peter's Square in recent years, to accommodate the 15,000 people who regularly show up. The crowd isn't rewarded with any rock music or athletic contest but nonetheless witnesses what in its own quiet way is a star turn. Today the pope delivered the first of a series of talks he plans on the nature of the Holy Spirit, part of the encyclopedic re-examination of the church and its history that he has ordered prefatory to the millennium year. This re-examination has perplexed some prelates who wanted merely a triumphant celebration.

The pope had been a scholar by profession before being surprised with the job of archbishop of Krakow in 1964 (chosen by a Communist official who incorrectly thought that a soft-spoken professor would be less likely than other Polish bishops to cause trouble in the job). For yesterday's lecture on the Holy Spirit, John Paul dug deep into the Hebrew background of what Christians call the Old Testament to find what seemed to him a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit in Jewish text. This will probably upset some Jewish theologians, but in John Paul's view, he was paying homage to Judaism in light of what he sees as Christian truth.

In late afternoon--after a working lunch, some rest, and more private meetings--the pope delivered another long speech, concluding the Asian synod. One might expect a gathering of Asian churchmen to be placid in contrast to comparable gatherings from Latin America, where the church's role in politics has been hotly--even bitterly--debated, and Africa, where many bishops have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Rome to accommodate asynchronous local traditions, particularly with regard to sex.

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Some Asian bishops, too, however, have campaigned for more "inculturation," or adaptation of church practice to ancient local traditions. Growing out of Eastern religions, these traditions often clash with the Judeo-Christian-Greek emphasis on individuality. Midway, events illustrated doctrine as the synod was jolted by news that a Pakistani bishop had committed suicide in protest against his government's practice of prosecuting Catholic laymen under laws that say certain Christian assertions are "blasphemy" against Islam. Suicide as an ethical statement is an extreme example of an act acceptable to many Asian traditions that contradicts the fundamental Catholic notion of an individual's relationship to God. As if to underscore this contradiction, the Pakistani government recognized the bishop's suicide--which itself was a blasphemy against Catholicism--by releasing the layman whose detention the bishop had been protesting.

No lingering dissent was visible, however, at the closing of the synod. The bishops roundly applauded the pope's enunciation of doctrine and laughed heartily at his self-deprecating jokes about his propensity to talk on. After the formal session, he worked the crowd masterfully, particularly honoring Vietnamese bishops, who had been allowed to leave home for the first time in decades.

In fact, aides say, John Paul's routine has diminished little from the early days of his papacy. Since his hip fracture several years ago, he often sits when he used to stand and allows subordinates to say masses he would have said himself in earlier years. Parkinson's disease has left him with a shaky left hand and has slowed the animation of his facial muscles. He walks with a stoop that some observers take as a sign of feebleness, but which his Polish friends assure me has characterized his gait since he was a young man winning swimming and climbing competitions. Age, however, has shriveled him several inches, and some aides say he is developing a weight problem from lack of exercise, though the robes hide it.

Still, his presence hardly justifies the constant press description of him as "frail." His handshake and gaze were firm as he greeted me with the words "I have read your book," a reference to my recently published biography of him. He thanked me repeatedly for writing it and particularly for the inscription on the copy I had sent him. Steering me into a conference room, where he offered to inscribe a copy of my book, he fell as much as sat in his chair, obviously relieved to get the weight off his leg. He began reminiscing that it was a special day for him--May 13--the 17th anniversary of the 1981 assassination attempt against him, which left him "on the boundary between life and death," a phrase he repeated for emphasis. It seemed the one caution he wanted to make about what I had written was that more credit was due to providence and less to him, that he had been only "a weak, weak instrument."

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More than that, I still think, even today.

Since his trip to Cuba in January, officials here still see steady progress, albeit slow, both in opening civil society in Cuba and in ending the American embargo. (Examples: For Easter week, the Cuban bishops requested the right to hold a Good Friday procession in the streets; the government turned them down but instead allowed Easter services to begin Saturday night outside churches, in public, for the first time. A book about the trip recently published by the Cuban government included Fidel Castro's more conciliatory farewell speech to the pope and not his more stridently anti-colonialist welcoming speech a few days earlier.) Nigeria's military dictators released some 140 political prisoners five weeks after John Paul's visit there in March. The Vatican says that was about 75 percent of the prisoners whose release the pope requested and that the other requests are under further study. Vatican Press Secretary Joaquin Navarro-Valls notes that earlier attempts by Amnesty International and other groups to win the release of prisoners met outright rejection by Nigeria. He notes also that Islamic religious leaders in Nigeria, who had canceled a meeting with the pope on an earlier trip several years ago, this time met him in a spirit of fellowship.

The archbishop who acts as John Paul's nuncio, or representative, in Nigeria (the largest country in Africa and the ancestral home of probably one in 10 Americans) meets regularly with Gen. Sani Abach, the military dictator. While a planned election this year still appears to be rigged, the nuncio is convinced the pope's intervention has resulted in a much lighter hand in the repression of dissent.

The reaction to the man is understandable. John Paul continues to radiate a larger-than-life aura that has awed presidents, premiers, and other statesmen. My wife, children, and I floated back to our hotel after leaving his presence.

Jonathan Kwitny is author of Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II.