You might not want to read this if you are Catholic and easily putout. I have no intention of offending anyone, but I have a feeling that, since I am not Catholic, or a Christian, or a follower of any religion, I may offend, or at least bother, some readers in my attempt to eulogize Karol Wojtytla, Pope John Paul II.
My personal connection to Pope John Paul II, such as it is, began almost immediately after he was named to the office in 1978 following the sudden death of poor old John Paul I, who got to be Pope for about three weeks or so, as I recall. It started with my mother, who made the snarky comment that John Paul II, being the first non-Italian Pope in ages, and certainly the first ever Slavic Pope, must be “a close relative of yours,” since he looked eerily like members of my father’s side of the family, who came from the same part of the world as he did.
Indeed, not only did JPII bear a strong resemblance to my grandfather and great-grandfather Sturak, it became – unfortunately – clear to me that all I needed to do was push my thatch of bangs away from my rather large forehead, pull my upper lip under just the slightest bit, throw a welcoming two-fingered gesture into the air, and this 13-year-old Topanga girl was immediately transformed into a sort of reverse-drag mini-Pope.
It became a running joke in my house. “Your relative is on TV,” my mother would call from the living room, and I’d come in to see him addressing huge crowds in St. Peter’s Square or in his native Poland. Little did I know he was changing the course of history, urging Poles to “be not afraid!” and intimidating Poland’s communist leader so much with his – what? Charisma? Moral authority? – that the man’s knees trembled noticeably on live television. Whoa.
By the time I was in high school, John Paul II made his first visit to the U.S., and I, by then known amongst my friends as a top-notch Pope impersonator, received many a souvenir from his New York and Chicago stops at my sweet sixteen. Inspired by JP’s visit, my friend Andy would roll open the sunroof on his VW Super Beetle, and I’d stand up in the back seat – as we’d cruise around Santa Monica – my bangs flying back off my forehead, arms in the air, “Children of America … I luf you!” I’d announce, with all the holiness I could muster, to passers-by. (My only defense? I was a drama major.)
The Berlin wall hadn’t fallen yet, there was no free Poland, and I certainly didn’t know anything about the Pope’s youth, or his struggle to survive the Nazi invasion of Poland by hiding for years in the home of his seminary teacher. I had no idea (and, oh, how I would have loved this!) that he’d been an actor and a playwright in his youth, and briefly pursued a career on the stage. Or that, during WWII, he led an underground theatre troupe that recited great Polish plays and poems in private homes, often in the dark so as not to be found, to keep the Polish culture from being completely destroyed during those horrible years. Or that he lost many Jewish friends in that war, since, coincidently, he’d been born in a small town outside of Krakow that was 20 percent Jewish – in a country that was 95 percent Catholic at the time.
I liked the guy, OK? There was something appealing about him, and, as my grandmother would say, he was “our people.”
By the time the Pope came to L.A. in 1987, I didn’t like him much anymore. What he’d done to quash the Catholic priests who supported the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador was unconscionable – and it made no sense – why could he support his “own” Polish revolution to free the oppressed, but literally wag his finger at those who did the same in Latin America, as he did to Father Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua in 1983? It felt hypocritical and patronizing.
I see now that the rules of organized religion make personal philosophy very easy – and the Pope’s philosophy was always that each individual human life should be valued above all else. It’s a nice philosophy, that. And it led John Paul II to come out strongly on the side of dialogue over violence, and peace over war of any kind – which is something I can get behind. But it also made it exceedingly simple for him to back away from some of the most challenging issues that came his way during the last 27 years – including the “liberation theology” of Latin American priests. On the world stage, when called upon to address contraception, a woman’s right to choose abortion, and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, he continually fell back on his “each human life has value” argument, allowing his religion to take the philosopher out of the man. By doing so, he helped to continue the long-standing oppression of women, the poor and the sick worldwide. That’s hard to take.
As a young man, Wojtytla was moved by the mystic writings of John of the Cross. I won’t pretend to know anything about John of the Cross, but I’ve read that young Karol intended to join a monastery, so that he could spend his life in deep meditative prayer on the suffering of Christ, as John of the Cross did, to become as close to God as possible. But his wish was foiled by Polish church leaders who convinced him, first during WWII, then as the Communist era began, that the Church – and the Polish people – needed him to stay in the priesthood as a public figure, as a shepherd of the flock.
So perhaps I’m asking too much of the man. Maybe Papal power, and what goes along with it, was more than he ever wanted.
There are so many stories and pictures of the young priest Wojtytla taking members of his congregation on hiking trips in the Carpathian mountains, encouraging them to discuss theology and philosophy, and even love and sex –during a time when they could have been thrown in jail for getting together at all. I love the pictures, because in every one he seems to be wearing a different pair of cool-looking sunglasses. (And, I’ll admit, he looks a lot like my dad in the mid-sixties, when he went through his sunglasses phase.) It gives you a different way of looking at him, that’s for sure.
My mother visited Rome a few years ago, and while she was at it, toured the Vatican. She returned with a gift of a small marble bust of the Pope himself, looking truly like my grandfather, about six-inches high. I put him on the top shelf of a bookcase in my living room, and soon my son, who was less than a year old at the time, began to look up and point.
“Unh!” He’d say. “Unh!” Finally, I lifted him up, and he reached out for the bust of the Pope, which, being made of marble, was much too heavy for him to hold or carry. Amused, I plopped him down on the couch, with the bust between his little legs, and said, “That’s the Pope. Say ‘Pope.’” My son, who had only three words: “hot” “no” and “cookie,” looked down and said, “Pope.” That bust became one of my son’s favorite toys.
In 2000, John Paul II asked for God’s forgiveness for all sins Catholics had committed against their fellow human beings, then visited the holy land nine days later to ask more specifically for forgiveness for the suffering Christians had caused Jews. In paying homage to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, he asked for silence, as, he said, “No words are strong enough to deplore the horrible tragedy of the Shoah.” There were those who complained that his apology didn’t go far enough, and, of course, others who said he shouldn’t have apologized at all. I say, he said and did what he felt must be said and done – and in the period of two weeks the Catholic Church showed more religious tolerance than it had in its centuries-long existence.
Even more recently, as a very frail and ailing man, John Paul II took on the Bush administration at its most monomaniacal, and told the world that the war in Iraq was immoral. There are countless things I can fault Pope John Paul II for, but today, I choose to thank him for these acts.
In the years since my mother toured the Vatican, my son has been diagnosed with autism. His therapists are always on the lookout for any sign of “imaginative play,” – dress up, playing with action figures, anything symbolic — which is difficult for autistic children to learn how to do. A few months back, he was holding on to the bust of the Pope, still a favorite after years later, and I spied on him as he put the Pope’s face right up to his and said, “Hi, Pope,” then put the bust behind his back and said, “Bye, Pope.” Then he brought the bust around front again, and said, “Hi Pope!” Then, “Oh thank you, Pope!” then, behind his back, “Bye, Pope!” and so on, and so on. “It’s imaginative play!” I stage-whispered to my husband. “Look! He’s pretending he’s actually talking to the Pope!”
“I always said he’d be the only Catholic in the family,” my husband replied, watching intently.
Oh thank you, Pope. Bye, Pope.
Photo in page 1 box by Margaret Molloy