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Pope soldiers on, carries weight of seven decades.

OXFORD, England -- Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope Oct. 16, 1978 -- 15 years ago. He doubtless would say that the anniversary of his priestly ordination, Nov. 1, 1946, was more important, for he insists that he remains first and foremost a priest.

John Paul was 73 May 18. Last time he was back in Poland, he heard people singing the traditional Polish greeting, Sto lat -- meaning "May you live to be a hundred years." He quipped: "If this pope lives so long, your grandchilden will be coming to see him. And what could be done with such an old pope? I can see only one solution: He'll have to run away and live in a monastery."

He was not entirely joking. He might one day go back to the Carmelite monastery he tried to join in 1939. ("You're born for higher things," they said: Ad majora natus es which sounds very worldly coming from Carmelites.) In 1995 he will reach 75, the age at which bishops must tender their resignation -- to him. But to whom can the bishop of Rome offer to resign?

Official Vatican sources insist the pope's health is fine and that he suffers no ill effects from his July 15, 1992, operation. Suggest the contrary and you will be accused of "wishful thinking" -- wanting him dead. I expect he will soldier on, health and God permitting, until the year 2000, a date which fascinates him like the eye of the basilisk. The Vatican object s to resignation talk because it suggests a lame-duck papacy.

Everything the pope does -- especially his energetic travels -- refutes the speculation. Though the foreign trips are a little less demanding than they once were, they still take a heavy toll on the accompanying cardinals and journalist, who return whey-faced saying, "Never again."

The pope's intellectual stamina is no less astonishing. His 10th encyclical, Veritatis, Splendor, is his mosot substantial, soporific and weighty to date -- and that's saying something.

The response to it, like the response to his pontificate generally, has been mixed. Some think Pope John Paul is saving the church from 1960s wimpishness, while others think his utter rejection of modernity is undermining its credibility. Compromise is hardly possible between such contradictory views.

But one can still try to figure him out. One way to do this is to snapshot him as the decades of his life roll by. Was he destined to write Veritatis Splendor?

1930. At 10, Karol -- "Lolek" as he was known -- is about to move on to high school. April 13, 1929, tragedy had struck: His mother, Emilia, died giving birth to a stillborn daughter. So at a stroke karol lost his mother and the sister he would never know. For all his admiration for "family life," he hardly knew it personally.

He is along in his one-parent family with his disciplinarian father, a junior officer in the Polish army. His brother Edmund, a medical doctor, is 14 years older and absent. Edmund will die two years later in a scarlet fever epidemic.

His father's earlier sevice in the Austro-Hungarian army and his mother's family origins in Silesia mean that German is already his natural second language.

During World War I, his father heard propaganda lectures from Max Scheler, the phenomenologist. Scheler claimed the Central Powers were defending Christian civilization against the Godless French, the autocratic Russians and the mercantile Protestant English.

1940. At 20 Wojtyla has just seen the collapse of his hopes, personally and nationally. His university is closed down, its professors hauled away to concentration camps. Poland is humiliated and enslaved after a mere 20 years of independence.

Wojtyla's response: a play (now lost) on the Book of Job. His Job suffers atrociously, but ends up with a resurrection vision. Hope is born on the other side of despair; faith is the only antidote to the absurd.

1950. At 30 Wojtyla has been a priest for more than three years and is back from Rome with a thesis on St. John of the Cross. The "liberation" brought to Poland by Marxism (in fact by the Red army) is a cheat, the rhetoric of progress a lie.

He writes a play about Adam Chmielowski, an artist who gave up painting to serve the poor of Krakow. It is the key to his own vocation: The poet-actor became a priest to lead a spiritual resistance movement.

1960. At 40 Wojtyla, moral philosophy professor in the Catholic University of Lublin, has written a thesis: Can one base a moral system on the value ethics of Max Scheler? He answers no. He becomes auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958, shortly before John XXIII succeeds Pius XII. But he keeps his Lubin chair.

He teaches a rejigged Thomism based on the dignity of the human person. He claims that artificial contraception degrades women by turning them into sex objects. His lecture notes -- translated into French in 1965 -- will affect Humanae Vitae.

He defends human rights in Poland. But Leszek Kolokowski asks whether he attacks communism because it is "godless" or because it is "totalitarian."

1970. Wojtyla, now a cardinal, is more widely known thanks to Vatican II (1962-65). He defends religious liberty stoutly, but more as a right the church claims against atheist regimes than one it concedes to fellow Christians or nonbelievers.

He finds some of the council's statements in Gaudium et Spes about the omnipresence of grace in the world to be wildly optimistic. He believes that the shadow of the cross falls across all human endeavors. Chapter 3 of Veritatis Splendor exhorts us "not to evacuate Christ's cross." Perhaps that is why, although a member of the Pontifical Commission on Population Problems, he never attends a single meeting.

Still, in comparison with Poland's primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski, who thinks Vatican II breaks the cohesion of the Polish Catholic church, Wojtyla is committed to the council. In Krakow he supervises its gradual, prudent and controlled implementation. But he is already suspicious of the Dutch church and theologians like Hans Kung who are linked with the journal Concilium. He accuses them of emptying the churches of the West with their secularizing theology. They show insufficient subordination to papal teaching authority.

For him Humanae Vitae dramatizes the crisis of authority. He privately called for a special synod to denouce "dissident" theologians or even bishops. Nothing in his Polish experience prepares him for the concept of "loyal opposition."

1980. Wojtyla is now pope after the brief interlude of the smiling John Paul I. He adopts his predecessor's double-barreled name, which neatly sidesteps the question of whether he is going to be more like John XXIII or Paul VI. He would have preferred the name Pope Stanislaus I, but this was rejected as "too nationalistic" -- rather like an Irish Pope calling himself Patrick.

There is early euphoria, an ecstatic honeymoonu. His electioni is a triple surprise: the first non-Italian since 1523, the first Slav ever, the youngest since Pius IX in 1846. He also brings a formidable array of talents and experience to the post: poet, philosopher, linguist, actor, quarry wormer.

But most of all he is Polish. Though he tries to downplay this, and declares that from now on he will be "witness to a universal love," his Polish experience colors all his thinking. His return home in June 1979 is a triumphant royal progress, illustrating the reality of spiritual power.

The Polish government has all the physical power needed to keep him out, but it cannot do so without a revolution. Solidarity was born of the self-confidence he inspired in Polish workers. He tells them his election was "providential" -- God's way of letting the Slav voice be heard in the church, compensation for all those years of torment, and suffering, Job's consolation, a hint of resurrection.

His message is the slogan of all Polish revolutions: "For our freedom -- and your!" To the world he says: Open wide your frontiers, cast down your barriers.

1990. By nowo he can feel that the frontiers of the impossible have been pushed back. In Prague he rejoices with fellow intellectual President Vaclav Havel that a free Central Europe has been restored to the map.

Yet if his message to the nations has won some sort of hearing, especially east of the river Elbe, his message to the church is not always so gratefully received. He comes down particularly hard on two groups a church leader is ill-advised to tangle with : bishops and theologians.

Veritatis Splendor represents a determined effort to get bishops to wake up to the danger of loose-cannon theologians. If the "appropriate measures" it calls for are implemented, there will be sackings in seminaries and other Catholic institutions.

Not all bishops will take the relaxed, laid-back approach of Cardinal Basil Hume in Westminster. Crisis? What crisis? There may be one somewhere else, but here we get on well with out moral theologians.

But Hume was named by Pope Paul VI. It does nothing for episcopal morale today to know that bishops are being appointed for their readiness to toe the most rigid party line. As for theologians, whose task is to think for the church as well as with it, credibility is not served by keeping men like Hans Kung, Leonardo Boff or Charles Curran in intellectual limbo.

They have shown their loyalty in adversity. They differ on noninfallible questions. They have no other home but the church. An amnesty would be in order. But the message of Veritatis Splendor is that it will have to wait for the next pontificate. Meantime, vigilance will be increased rather than diminshed.

Two quotations spring to mind. Aldous Huxley. "You can do anything with bayonets -- except sit upon them." And Benedictine Christopher Butler, formerly abbot of Downside Abbey and auxiliary bishop of Westminster: "An authority that does not address the coscience, will soon cease to be an authority."
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Title Annotation:John Paul II; Looking back...
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 22, 1993
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