The Pope on the Move
“THE Pope Conquers Spain” was a headline in the Spanish press. “Papal Fever Everywhere,” proclaimed the Sunday New Nigerian on the occasion of the pope’s visit to West Africa. “More than a million Poles gathered at a soccer stadium to hear Pope John Paul II celebrate mass,” reported The New York Times of June 18, 1983.
These descriptions reflect some of the fervent reactions to the pope’s 20 journeys that have covered 38 countries around the world during the last five years. It was estimated that 18 million Poles saw him in the course of his eight-day tour of Poland this year. That is half of the country’s population!
In many countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, even non-Catholics turned out to satisfy their curiosity. As one writer stated: “Acclaim was not confined to the working classes, nor even to Catholics.”
According to the same source, “An English [Catholic] cabinet minister wrote of him [the pope] in May 1979 in the language of a fan-club magazine: the Pope had star quality, his presence was majestic and electrifying, he radiated authority and strength.”
In his biography of Pope John Paul II, Britain’s Lord Longford, a converted Catholic, commented that in New York’s Yankee Stadium the pope “was given a reception worthy of a superstar.” Little wonder that writer Peter Nichols, sympathetic to the church, though not a Catholic, stated in his book The Pope’s Divisions: “Popular enthusiasm for the papacy is now part of modern life.”
But why is this pope so popular? How deeply do his visits really affect the conduct of Catholics? Why are these papal visits so necessary at this point in history? What is the message that the pope offers to the world? The following articles will discuss these questions.
The Pope—Why So Popular?
“POPE John Paul II’s visit across Spanish soil has been like a hurricane of popular emotions, enthusiasm and fervor . . . To use the language of numbers . . . John Paul II’s visit has broken all the country’s records.”—ABC, Madrid daily newspaper.
Of course, the pope’s popularity can be explained in simple terms—he is the spiritual leader of over 600 million Catholics around the world, so that in almost any country where there are Catholics he is sure to get a good audience. But that would be an oversimplification of the phenomenon. What, then, are the factors that explain the pope’s popularity at this moment in history?
“He Doesn’t Miss a Trick”
Part of the answer can perhaps be found in his early experience as an actor. Lord Longford, in his authorized biography of Pope John Paul II, says: “It is, however, as an actor that he is best remembered by his schoolfriends. A visiting director told him: ‘One day you will be a great actor.’” The biography continues: “There can be no doubt that this art of the living word . . . permeated and inspired Karol Wojtyla [the pope’s real name] from youth onwards.”
However, what bearing does this have on his rapport with the public? Biographer Lord Longford adds: “It was eventually reflected in the astonishing impact that the future Pope was to make in many different languages on countless millions throughout the world.” Catholic priest and writer Andrew M. Greeley wrote: “He has handled the first six weeks of his job with the accomplished skills of a professional actor and a professional politician. One cannot help but marvel at the flawlessness of his performance.”
Certainly this pope knows how to make use of the emotive and dramatic gesture to win over the masses. For example, before a crowd of 200,000 in Rome, “when a little boy rushed up with flowers, a fussy monsignor tried to chase him away. But the pope grabbed the little bambino and hugged him.” Adds Greeley: “You can tell, somebody said to me, that he studied for the stage. He doesn’t miss a trick.” Priest Greeley agreed: “He sure doesn’t.”
“The Greatest Show, the Biggest Fiesta Ever”
Psychology of the masses is another feature of this pope’s success. A writer for Newsweek described the pope as “a gifted trouper who can play a vast crowd like an actor enthralling an audience.” An example of this ability took place on his arrival in Mexico in 1979. As noted in the book The Man Who Leads the Church, he was met at the airport with “a full-scale mariachis band—traditional local musicians” who “swung into the great Mexican favourite, ‘Cielito Lindo’ . . . It was a cliché, but nobody cared. This pontifical tour was to be the greatest show, the biggest fiesta ever. John Paul II’s sense of spectacle proved equal to his hosts’. He stalked down the gangway and fell on his hands and knees to kiss Mexican soil. (It had become a traditional gesture. . . . But it never failed of its effect.)”
The effect of all of this on the crowds worldwide is well described by Catholic author Peter Hebblethwaite: “What messages were they picking up from this exciting new pope? . . . In the popular enthusiasm aroused by the journeys of John Paul II people simply forgot or omitted to attend to what he was actually saying. . . . The reason he was able to get away with almost anything was that the novelty of his pontificate and the charism of his presence provided a distraction from what he actually said.” Yes, as they enjoy the show the masses seem to miss the implications of the pope’s forthright speeches. But for many liberal-minded Catholics his sermons are very unpalatable, too hard line and conservative.
‘A Partner With Statesmen and Politicians’
Another cause of the pope’s popularity is that we live in a generation that has been conditioned to offer and accept idol worship. People worldwide have their television and cinema stars, sports idols and political saviors. So why not religious idols too? If the Protestants have their Billy Graham and “Reverend” Moon, why should not Catholics have their John Paul II? In case anyone should think this is an exaggeration, note what Catholic writer Hebblethwaite states in his book The Year of the Three Popes: “When a man becomes pope, a process of mythologization starts which it is difficult to resist. His previous life is edited to show that he was long destined for the office he would eventually occupy [the papacy]. He becomes over-night a world figure, a partner in dialogue with statesmen and politicians and with Church leaders of all kinds.”—Italics ours.
Therefore, in the modern context the pope thrusts himself into the limelight by reason of his constant contact and communication with “statesmen and politicians.” He becomes another worldwide TV personality. Since he is also the head of a temporal state, Vatican City, he is received with all honor by heads of state and political rulers—even by the communists! Yes, “despite its minuscule size, however, Vatican City has been said to possess an influence greater than that of Italy itself,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica.
But other factors have also greatly influenced the publicity projection of the present pope. Catholic editor Rowanne Pascoe supplies a clue, saying: “Despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of army divisions, the Pope is the one person who can be called a world leader. In an age of political pygmies he has taken over the moral leadership of the world.” This suggests that the political figures of the world are so low on moral stature that it makes the pope look like a giant!
The Pope, Politics and Poland
Another element that has enamored this pope to the masses is his evident use of nationalism and his involvement in political and social issues. He has crossed swords with several governments and political leaders. Herein lies an apparent contradiction between his commands to the clergy to keep out of politics and his own speeches that have entangled him in political issues.
For example, Lord Longford noted that during the pope’s visit to the Philippines “he warned the anti-government wing of the Church there to avoid interfering in politics, reminding them of their roles in society: ‘You are priests and religious. You are not social or political leaders or officials of a temporal power.’” Yet in his speech to the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference he is quoted as saying that ‘although the Church could be linked to revolutionary social reform, political violence could not be condoned.’ During his 13 days in Brazil, said Longford, the pope “urged the poor to do everything within their power to ensure that they obtain rights owing to them by the government. His visit was, according to The Universe, ‘an accusation of the Brazilian Government’s criminal neglect.’”
The pope’s political power is exemplified by his recent visit to Poland, which, according to press reports, was very carefully planned with a view to resolving Poland’s critical political and economic problems. William Safire of The New York Times wrote: “Church and state have reached some secret agreement, and the political blessing so avidly sought by Moscow’s chosen Polish leader was given. . . . The church, to endure, is sometimes required to make deals with totalitarians.”
The fact that the pope’s visit to Poland also had a political motivation has further support. President Reagan interviewed Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, who had accompanied the pope on his visit to Poland. Why? Because “Mr. Reagan wanted the Cardinal’s impressions of the situation in Poland after the papal visit with its sharp political ramifications.” (Italics ours.) Who can deny that the pope’s travels have political overtones, which fact also makes him popular with the masses, if not always with the rulers?
It is one thing to understand the reasons for his present popularity, but a more important question is, Why have his world travels been necessary now? What message has he presented? How deep are its effects? The following articles will discuss those issues.
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‘The pope becomes a partner in dialogue with statesmen and politicians’
The Pope’s Travels—Why Necessary?
WITH his second visit to Poland, Pope John Paul II completed his 20th international pilgrimage in just five years. After centuries of papal immobility, it is reasonable to ask, Why have so many excursions been necessary in so short a period?
Writer Peter Nichols supplies us with a clue. Speaking of the conclave when John Paul II was chosen, he writes: “There must surely have been, however, widespread agreement . . . that, above all, the Catholic Church needed taking in hand, and that its long period of unease, confusion, experiments, of doubts and discussions, to say nothing of defections . . . had now to be brought to an end.”
This situation is further highlighted by an elderly Dutch priest who, speaking of Dutch Catholicism, said: “There is despair. There is a flight of intellectuals and of simple people. There are public conflicts between the bishops. It is an immense, immense tragedy.” Then, on the vocation for the priesthood, he added: “They do not want to be priests these young people. They will not give their confidence to a church in a state of moral tragedy.”
This malaise affects the Catholic Church in most parts of the world. The unquestioning loyalty of Catholics to the precepts of their church that was evident 30 or 40 years ago has diminished. Attendance at Mass and confession has dropped.
Yes, there are deep and definite cracks in the monolithic structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Divisions are evident in three main fields: (1) the daily practice of basic Catholic norms on morality (abortion, birth control, divorce), (2) politics and social reform, and (3) theology, the basic teachings of the church.
Do Catholics Obey the Pope?
In just the last few years, abortion, contraception and divorce have become burning debates at all levels of Catholic society. Just prior to the pope’s visit to the United States in 1979 a sample of American Catholics was polled about their adherence to Catholic norms. The book The Man Who Leads the Church states that “50 per cent were prepared to tolerate abortion on demand; 53 per cent believed priests should be allowed to marry; 63 per cent thought divorce acceptable . . . and 66 per cent said they would like the Church to approve artificial birth control. On that last point in particular, practice and precept among American Catholics had permanently parted company. Catholic couples were known to be widely using contraceptives, and without any great feelings of guilt about it.”
Similar attitudes on issues of morality are found even in predominantly Catholic countries. A report from Spain indicated that 47,605,000 birth-control items were sold there in 1982. Abortions have been common practice in Catholic countries for a long time. Even Ireland, a fervently Catholic country, is showing the cracks. John Whale writes: “The bishops [of Ireland] themselves acknowledge that ‘at present more than 2200 Irish girls are officially registered as having abortions in Britain each year.’ The true figure is commonly reckoned to be much higher.”
One of the big issues deeply affecting Catholics is divorce. For the church it does not exist, and in his speeches Pope John Paul II has been adamant on that score. However, there is, instead, the sometimes costly and time-consuming annulment. Writer John Whale says about the situation in the United States: “Divorce was identified by Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami as ‘the main problem we face—no doubt about it.’” Why are some church authorities reluctant to apply the strict norms of the church on this matter? “They recognize that such a course would defeat their aims, both pastorally and in point of Catholic numerical advance. So they issue thirty thousand annulments a year—in essence, certificates that a broken marriage never really happened in the first place, . . . ‘There’s an element of legal acrobatics in it’, a Chicago cleric . . . acknowledged.”—Italics ours.
A cardinal in the United States recently celebrated a Mass for divorced and separated persons. The New York Times reported: “It was . . . the first time a cardinal celebrated mass for divorced and separated Catholics.” If even a cardinal flies in the face of church edicts, no wonder the pope has to travel the world to try to keep discipline within the ranks!
Does Politics Divide the Church?
Although great emphasis is laid by Vatican spokesmen on the “pastoral” purpose of the pope’s travels, many commentators see them in a different light. The book The Man Who Leads the Church states regarding the pope’s journeys: “Despite the emphasis on their spiritual or pastoral nature, each journey involved tackling a political issue.”
So why are these visits so necessary? Because deep divisions affect the Catholic clergy on political and social issues. This was especially exemplified in the pope’s tour of Central America. One journalist headlined his article on the pope’s journey: “Politics and Religion Divided and Entwined on Pope’s Route.” That was made abundantly clear on his visit to Nicaragua, where Catholic priests occupy important positions in the government. At the same time, according to The New York Times, the archbishop of Managua, capital of Nicaragua, is “a strong critic of the Government.” Is that not a church divided?
The same report also stated that the pope’s principal objective in Central America was “to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church . . . against challenges from the inside by leftist priests and nuns.” The monolithic and autocratic structure of the Catholic Church is cracking and, somewhat like the legendary Dutch boy trying to plug the ruptured dike with his finger, Pope John Paul II is dashing around the world trying to stop up the holes.
Church Teachings Under Assault
Further cracks in the church fabric are seen as Catholic theologians and priests continue to put in doubt some of the fundamental teachings of the church. Little wonder that Benedictine priest Patrick Granfield described the pope’s responsibility of preserving the unity of faith as awesome, “because nearly every aspect of the traditional teaching on faith and morals is the subject of intense theological debate. The issues include: . . . sexual morality; birth control; abortion; divorce and remarriage; priestly celibacy; ordination of women,” among others.
Back in 1971 the pope, then Cardinal Wojtyla, had indicated that some theologians had been sowing seeds of doubt by questioning such basic doctrines as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. Others, such as Hans Küng, Swiss Catholic scholar, put in doubt the 19th-century doctrine of papal infallibility.
The Catholic Church is wracked with divisions and self-doubt. The clergy cover the spectrum from liberal and progressive to conservative and ultraorthodox in the religious field, and from communist to fascist in the political arena. Added to all of this is the worldwide crisis in vocations, leading to a shortage of priests and nuns. Communism continues to claim the loyalty of a sizable portion of the population in Catholic countries such as Italy, France and Spain. Little wonder the pope must travel and deliver stern warnings!
But, in his travels, what message does he carry to the nations? What hope does he offer to the world? Our final article on this subject will discuss those questions.
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The pope is taking a hard look at Catholic attitudes toward divorce, birth control and abortion
The Pope’s Message—Is It the Answer?
“BIDDING farewell to my countrymen in Cracow, . . . I wish that good, under the care of the Holy Virgin of Jasna Gora, could once again turn out to be more powerful than evil on Polish land.”
With these words Pope John Paul II concluded his 1983 visit to Poland. The New York Times reporter commented: “The reference to the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland’s most revered symbol of religion and nationalism, has been an underlying theme of the Pope’s trip.”—Italics ours.
“Passionate Attachment to the Virgin Mary”
Catholic writer Peter Hebblethwaite observes: “Devotion to Mary is something else that Wojtyla owes to the Polish long tradition. . . . Even in his briefest statements he alludes to Mary.” This significant remark is a clue to a predominant facet of the present pope’s religiosity—his attachment to the Virgin Mary under her many different manifestations in the Catholic world.
In his authorized biography of the pope, Lord Longford states: “His devotion to the blessed Virgin Mary is a fundamental part of him. . . . It is impossible to think of him without it. In this respect he shares no doubt in a fervent Polish tradition. His love of the Virgin Mary goes back to his earliest years.” Interestingly, his mother died when he was a child, so the same writer says: “It has been suggested that the early loss of his mother may have contributed to Wojtyla’s passionate attachment to the Virgin Mary in later years.” (Italics ours.) Peter Hebblethwaite comments: “Mary represents the feminine element in his life.”
Some Catholics Taken Aback
But as Hebblethwaite admits: “Some Catholics find this cult of Mary excessive; some Protestants dismiss it as unscriptural, superstitious and even, at the limit, blasphemous.” Even Mexican Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo reproached the pope’s inordinate devotion to Mary; the innumerable references to the virgin of Guadalupe were “altogether too much.” Even more so when we remember that anthropologists identify this Virgin, ‘la Morenita,’ with the ‘sweet lady of Tepeyac,’ who is identified with the old Aztec goddess Tonantzin. Catholic priest Andrew Greeley admits “that Mary is one of the most powerful religious symbols in the history of the Western world. . . . The Mary symbol links Christianity directly to the ancient religions of mother goddesses.”—Italics ours.
How did some Italian Catholics react to Polish Catholicism? Writer Peter Nichols describes the reactions of a group who visited Poland to see for themselves the Catholic revival there. “The first shock—there were others—was that Jesus had a subordinate role. The Virgin Mary came first and the Polish pope second, with Jesus, as these young people put it, a bad third.” In this case, the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, “Most High over the whole world,” did not even make a worse fourth!—Psalm 83:18, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Whom Did Peter Emphasize?
All the foregoing gives us some understanding of the present pope’s Polish religious background and his basic message for mankind. He hammers home the role of the “Mother of God” as a mediatress between God and man. But is he teaching the right message for the times in which we live? Should he be emphasizing the mother of Christ? Or should he be proclaiming that which the apostle Peter and the early Christians preached as the only hope for mankind, namely, God’s Kingdom, or government rule, by Christ?
As a matter of interest, since the pope claims to be the legal successor to the apostle Peter, what did Peter say about Mary? Did he direct attention to her as the solution for mankind’s problems? Did he use her as a nationalist symbol? Did he exalt her above God and Christ in his worship?
The truth of the matter is that in his two letters he does not even mention Mary once! And she is mentioned in only 5 of the 27 books of the Greek Scriptures. Although she is spoken of in the Gospels with respect and favor for her humble role as the mother of the Messiah, no writer ever attributes any veneration to her.
In contrast, Peter does clearly highlight God’s role. In his first letter he states: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for according to his great mercy he gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And, regarding Jesus, he said to fellow believers: “Set your hope upon the undeserved kindness that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” “The revelation of Jesus Christ,” not Mary, will mean the end of this corrupt system of things. By means of the cleansing “war of the great day of God the Almighty,” all wickedness will be removed from the earth. Justice and righteousness will be restored through Christ’s Kingdom rule from the heavens.—1 Peter 1:3, 13; Revelation 16:14, 16; 19:11.
Peter wrote of that Kingdom, saying: “In fact, thus there will be richly supplied to you the entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This same heavenly Kingdom government is going to rid the earth of all elements that blaspheme Jehovah’s name and pollute this earth. As Peter emphatically states: “But there are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.”—2 Peter 1:11; 3:13; Daniel 2:44.
The Right Message and the Right Mediator
Therefore, the true message for the nations today is not involvement in politics or nationalism; neither is it a matter of venerating a man-made tradition about Mary, “the feminine aspect of God,” as priest Greeley calls her. The vital message for our perilous times is that which Jesus commanded: “And this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations; and then the end will come.”—Matthew 24:14.
Jesus urged his followers to pray for that Kingdom to come when he counseled: “You must pray, then, this way: ‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.’” Did Jesus say that his followers should request God’s Kingdom through his mother, Mary? His own answer is: “Also, whatever it is that you ask in my name, I will do this, in order that the Father may be glorified in connection with the Son [not the mother]. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Clearly, Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man, even as the apostle Paul affirmed: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, a man, Christ Jesus.”—Matthew 6:9, 10; John 14:13, 14; 1 Timothy 2:5.
Therefore, if we want a solid hope for the future of mankind and the earth, to whom must we turn? Is it to the “Queen of Poland,” as the pope has suggested so many times? What did Jesus say? “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” Yes, everlasting life is through Jehovah God and Christ Jesus because the Kingdom is also through them. And knowledge of them is obtained by means of a study of God’s Word, the Bible, “the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through the faith in connection with Christ Jesus.”—John 17:3; 2 Timothy 3:15.
We urge all sincere persons, Catholics and others, to acquire that knowledge. You, too, can know of God’s Kingdom and look forward to the fast-approaching time when “he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” Jehovah’s Witnesses in your neighborhood will gladly help you to understand the Bible by means of a free home Bible study, without any obligation.—Revelation 21:4.