At 754 pages, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II qualifies as one of the weightiest biographies of the long-serving prelate who, as a Polish national, broke the long- standing tradition, in place for the preceding 455 years, of appointing Italians to the papacy. This comprehensive biography, written by Jonathan Kwitny—formerly a front page feature writer for the Wall Street Journal and whose series on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), The Kwitny Report, won the George Polk Award for the best investigative reporting on television—distinguishes itself from the nine other books written about Pope John Paul II since 1990 by honing in on the pope’s role in ending the Cold War that had divided the East and West since World War II ended in 1945.
This book, Kwitny’s eighth, is essentially an exhaustive example of investigative reporting, comparable in many ways to his earlier, highly successful journalistic efforts such as Acceptable Risks (1992), The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA (1988), and Vicious Circles: The Mafia in the Marketplace (1979). The journalistic approach of Man of the Century is evident in its title: As the millennium approaches, it is inevitable that people-of-the-century and people-of-the-millennium books and articles will crowd the shelves of bookstores and the pages of magazines and journals.
The election of Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, to pope took the world by surprise. Pope John Paul I, the new pope’s immediate predecessor, held office for only thirty-three days before his unexpected death early in October, 1978. When the College of Cardinals was reconvened to select John Paul I’s successor, most people foresaw that an Italian would be chosen to assume the role of pope. A few, sensing that the Roman Catholic church was due for some sort of drastic change, had gone so far as to predict that a non-Italian would be selected, possibly a black cardinal from one of the newly established African nations; these prognosticators, however, were a distinct minority.
As the cardinals met to choose the new pope, the Curia had prepared for distribution to reporters a press release with biographical sketches of sixteen likely candidates. Karol Wojtyla’s name was not included on that list, from which most journalists were convinced the new pope would be selected. When the newly elected pope’s name was finally made public, the universal response was “Who?” At that point, Wojtyla was little known outside his native Poland. One American, on hearing his name announced, presumed that an Asian had been named pope.
The Polish reaction to Wojtyla’s election generally was one of astonishment tempered by considerable hope, although the political leaders in the communist regime that then controlled Poland were deeply troubled by the choice. Many dissident Poles interpreted the appointment as a sure sign that Communism was about to collapse, an interpretation that, in the long term, has proved to be on the mark.
Throughout his life until his election to the papacy, Wojtyla was an outspoken defender of the poor and a strenuous foe of political oppression. He rose to a position of power in the Polish church when he was appointed archbishop of Krakow in 1964. The Polish United Workers’ Party, the official, communist-leaning party in power at the time, was unwilling to accede to the church’s preferences in selecting an archbishop for this major city. The head of the Polish church in this now classless society was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was descended from noble stock. The controlling political party did not want a churchman with such high visibility as the archbishop of Krakow to be of noble birth.
Wojtyla came from a relatively poor worker’s family. Philosophically, he was the polar opposite of Wyszynski. Zenon Kliszko, Polish minister of religious affairs at the time, selected Wojtyla from among the candidates for the archbishopric because he knew Wojtyla was an independent thinker who would, in a position of power, break from Wyszynski, thereby playing into the Party’s hands by embarrassing the church. Kliszko considered Wojtyla the best candidate for the reigning party, not because Wojtyla had communist leanings—he clearly did not—but because he was likely to challenge his ecclesiastical superiors.
A decade later, Pope John Paul II, as the new leader of the Roman Catholic church, embarked on a program that...
(The entire section is 1846 words.)