As John Paul Fades Away, His Revolution Continues

Old editions of the Yale Songbook included a German drinking song called “The Pope.” This was its first stanza: “The Pope, he leads a jolly life / He’s free from every care and strife. / He drinks the best of Rhenish wine, / I wish the Pope’s gay life were mine.”

But the next stanza decided that, in fact, the Pope leads no jolly life: “He has no maid, nor blushing wife.” The Sultan, said the third stanza, “better pleases me” on account of his harem. In stanza four, we learned that, even so, “the Sultan is a wretched man,” for “He must obey the Al-Koran,” which forbids drinking.

Stanza five put it all together: “So when my sweetheart kisses me, / I’ll think that I’ll the Sultan be, / And when my Rhenish wine I tope, / Why, then I’ll think I am the Pope.”

There is not much Rhenish wine or toping ahead for Pope John Paul II, fresh from his tracheotomy. As the Pope goes into that good night, thoughts turn to his long career. Catholics must judge how he has filled the throne of St. Peter; journalists (and everyone else) can have an opinion on him as a public figure, like the Dalai Lama or Clint Eastwood.

Purple-fingered Iraqis voting on their own destiny, and Lebanese demonstrating in Martyrs Square for freedom from Syrian overlordship, are the latter-day heirs of the John Paul II, for the quarter-century of liberation which is now shaking the Middle East began with him, when the brand-new Polish Pope made a pilgrimage to his homeland in the summer of 1979.

The 1970’s, if not quite a low, dishonest decade, was a low, confused one. The United States was mired in Nixonian détente and Carterian weakness. The Soviet Union, though we now know it was exhausted, seemed on the march, acquiring clients in Africa and rattling its rockets at Western Europe. John Paul II rewrote the political equation. His mere presence in Poland was an affront to the officially atheistic regime. He drew crowds of up to one million and told the Poles that they were men, not new Soviet men.

The consequences were both immediate and long-term. Solidarity, Poland’s first independent labor union, was founded in 1980, inspired by John Paul II’s visit. The authorities crushed it, but its spirit lived on. In 1989, most of the Eastern European dictatorships washed away. The Soviet Union and South Africa soon followed; later, Afghanistan, the Ukraine and Iraq. All of these countries had their own dissident movements, or outside help, or both. Some changed peacefully, some with rebellions, some with wars. But John Paul II led the way.

The remainder of his political career has been a disappointment, typical of Vatican diplomacy for the last few centuries. John Paul II could not actively encourage the tidal wave he helped to start, because he is next-door to a pacifist. The Vatican has never taken the final step to complete nonviolence; it acknowledges, in theory, that there may be just wars. But the church bureaucracy, and John Paul II himself, sets the bar for just war so high that whenever there has been a clash of arms between despotism and its enemies, the Pope has come down on the side of inaction, which in effect leaves the despots secure in their palaces and their rape rooms. Anything that cannot be accomplished by making a pilgrimage to Kraków has not gotten his blessing. As a result, the Marines have to do the hard work of liberation on their own.

John Paul II has maintained the Catholic Church as a force in the world-sometimes, it seems, all by himself. Christianity of any kind in Europe is dead; Catholicism loses ground to Protestant churches in Latin America; the Catholic Church in the United States is buffeted by crosscurrents. During this low-pressure front, the Pope has been a tireless advocate and presence. In an age first of television, then of the Internet, why travel? You can be everywhere at home, whether you’re making amateur porn or singing Romanian pop songs. John Paul II didn’t see it that way. Woody Allen said that 85 percent of celebrity is showing up. Eighty-five percent of John Paul’s papacy has been about showing up. If there’s a Catholic in the world who hasn’t laid eyes on him, it is not John Paul II’s fault.

Other responsibilities got lost in the shuffle. An American can be excused for noting that John Paul II’s administrative style was catastrophically slack. The scandal of priestly sex abuse was not Father Shanley’s perversion; it was Cardinal Law’s negligence and collusion. Older New Yorkers remember the liberal judge known to the tabloids as “Turn ‘em Loose Bruce.” Cardinal Law was “Let ‘em Free Bernie.” He and his equally culpable bishops were more interested in caring for a small flock of deranged priests than in caring for their flock. They were the apparat that John Paul II put in place; he shares their failure.

Now John Paul II is falling apart before our eyes. The handsome skier, the tireless pilgrim, has become a wraith, like characters in Endgame, like the inhabitants of a thousand nursing homes. He could shut himself up in Castel Gandolfo or in a hospital, but he doesn’t. What does he mean to say by exhibiting himself to us?

I looked for the first time into the Pensées of Pascal, the 17th-century French Christian mathematician; it was a free copy in a box of books on the street. I can’t judge a book by its contents so quickly, but one phrase that Pascal seems to use repeatedly is that we must hate ourselves, since we and nature are corrupt. That seems perverse. If we are so hateful, why bother with churches? Let the human refuse flush itself away and hold the land for better investments.

Pascal’s advice also seems redundant. The world does quite enough hating of us without our adding to it. Tsunamis and terrorists slaughter us. Cancers pick us off one by one. Even without such spectacular exits, we wear out, grow weak, whisper, shake. Our lovely rose-tinted flesh rots away, like roses. Everyone knows this, and everyone does not want to know this. So John Paul II is using his star power to remind us. Also to tell us that we are still worthy of respect and love, if only for old times’ sake.