MOSCOW — Sixty years ago when friends of a young Pole, Karol Wojtyla, grieved that the talented actor was abandoning the stage for a Catholic seminary, their concerns were in vain. Actually, though, the young man never quit acting. As Pope John Paul II, he became the greatest artistic star in the world.
It was partly due to his looks. Wojtyla was born handsome. At the age of 60, as a young and aspiring pope, he looked dazzling: deep-set intense eyes, finely chiseled chin, prominent cheekbones, a yet sparsely furrowed forehead. Even in old age and crippled by illness, he still kept a winning mischievous smile.
Each time he faced a crowd, unsolvable magic called charisma happened: People went berserk with excitement and occasionally true happiness. The pope not just survived years of encounters with ill health — he needed them, getting energized and almost rejuvenated each time.
Once, I happened to be just 50 meters away from him during an Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Square in Rome when a friend smuggled me into a diplomatic lounge. With the pope 40 minutes late, word passed that he had died; but suddenly there he was, his richly embroidered vestments sparkling like the crust of a tropical beetle. He looked very weak, but still made his way to the opulent throne stubbornly and slowly.
He looked tired and uninspired throughout the Mass. Finally he started blessing the crowds in all the languages he didn’t know — maybe 50 or 60. As his litany progressed, his voice became crispier and louder, his facial expression more benign and relaxed, his bearing firmer. By the end of the event, everybody in St. Peter’s was tired except him.
John Paul was a great success as an actor. As a pope, he was a failure. Conservative and obstinate, he put the Catholic Church in the state of deep freeze. This could have been the Catholics’ private matter, but unfortunately it wasn’t, as a number of John Paul’s policies concerned any and every one of us.
His ban on contraception was one. Hailed as a bearer of hope, love and forgiveness, in the age of AIDS the pope became an accomplice to thousands of deaths worldwide, particularly in the Third World. No matter what he thought about the divine plan for sexual intercourse, the role of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases was a different issue. The pope’s response to the epidemic was pretty much straightforward: Don’t be promiscuous and you won’t get it.
(A) Only a lunatic could ever hope to stop extramarital, premarital or homosexual sex.
(B) Unprotected sex, leading to the spread of AIDS, caused thousands of infants to become infected, many of them while in the womb of their mother.
We will never know the exact number of men and women who got infected after deciding not to use condoms because of John Paul’s charismatic preaching. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?
Contraception is not just about personal choices. Unprotected sex spreads not only disease but also poverty. In socially conservative areas like Latin America and Africa, where John Paul was more likely to be heard, the rejection of contraceptives has led to the births of millions of children, hardly wanted by their parents and definitely unwanted by the society that couldn’t provide for them.
Famine, lack of medical care and gang violence in overpopulated, drug-ridden, destitute slums have subsequently claimed thousands of those lives. The “champion of the poor” behaved like an irresponsible gardener, dazed by playing God in his garden and dumping hundreds of seeds where there wasn’t enough space for a dozen.
The pope’s refusal to start ordaining women as priests was another slap in the face of modernity. Women’s overall rights in Europe and North America were not impaired, but the rights of females in the Third World were. This doctrinal misogyny fortified male prejudices in those countries. Was that what the man especially devoted to the Virgin Mary wanted to achieve?
What were the real accomplishments of his reign? His contribution to the collapse of communism? Yes, he contributed to the process, but like a rock star not as a leader. Workers and students in his native Poland had repeatedly and heroically rebelled against the communist regime and Russian control. The election of Poland’s native son as pope became just a catalyst for the ongoing Polish revolution. The cardinals who elected him, hoping to make a powerful anticommunist statement, deserve more credit.
His prolonged and very public suffering from sickness and old age has been called a message of hope. On the other hand, one might view his refusal to retire as an obsession with power.
Numerous world leaders, particularly autocrats, cling to power to the last breath. When the Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco Bahamonde lay dying after 40 years in power, his fans assembled in front of the palace, chanting, “Goodbye, goodbye.” Franco, barely conscious, asked with great surprise, “Where are they going?”
John Paul visited 129 countries and reaped unreserved praise for that. Did he solve a single substantial issue during these extensive travels? Your Aunt Agatha, who is a notorious world-trotter, would have made even more journeys, had she had a private jet and free lodgings in every country.
Karol Wojtyla’s posthumous cult is not much different from that of Marilyn Monroe, who left a handful of mediocre movies but is still regarded as an icon because of her dramatic persona.
Frankly, it appears as if John Paul was as far from sainthood as most of us poor sinners. Whether he deserves an Academy Award for lifetime achievements in acting is another matter.
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