Pope John Paul II Criticism

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J. M. Cameron (review date 3 May 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Where the New Pope Stands,” in New York Review of Books, May 3, 1979, pp. 14-20.

[In the following review, Cameron examines John Paul's leadership, social vision, and thought in Sign of Contradiction.]

Interest in the Papacy has increased since the short pontificate of John XXIII. The good nature and charm of John were irresistible. As a personality Paul VI was less expansive; the task of presiding over the consequences of the second Vatican Council was something he did with great ability, but he found it tormenting, and this was evident in the tone of his later speeches, plaintive, passionate, mournful. John Paul I was an instant success: it seemed as though Don Camillo had become Pope (just as John XXIII, in his humanity and holiness, seemed to have come out of the pages of I Promessi Sposi); but we had scarcely begun to enjoy his gentle belletrist approach to spiritual problems when death took him. (Illustrissimi, with its letters to Dickens, Scott, Saint Bernard, Goldoni, Figaro, Luke the Evangelist, and others, has a distinctively nineteenth-century charm).

Now, with John Paul II, we are presented with one who is altogether formidable: younger than his fifty-eight years, strong in body and mind, familiar with the political world of Eastern Europe, intensely masculine, a man of humble background and a former manual worker, well-educated, much better acquainted with modern philosophical thought than his immediate predecessors, a respectable poet, a weighty contributor to the Vatican II debates. The most immediately striking thing about him is that he is a Pole, a former archbishop of Krakow.

The Poles are a singular people in the contemporary world. Their national consciousness and their consciousness as Catholics are hard to prize apart. This is a fact so influential that the communist government finds itself, perhaps a little to its own surprise, giving the Church an amount of recognition without parallel in Eastern Europe or anywhere else under communist rule. Cardinal Wojtyla's own vivid feeling as a Pole—what it would scarcely be too strong to call his romanticism—overflowed into his first sermon as Pope, when, at the end, he turned to those who had come from Krakow to the Mass of his inauguration.

What shall I say to you who come from my Krakow, from the see of St. Stanislaus of whom I was the unworthy successor for fourteen years … ? Everything that I could say would fade into insignificance compared with what my heart feels at this moment. … I ask you: be with me at Jasna Gora and everywhere. Do not cease to be with the Pope who today prays with the words of the poet: “Mother of God, you who defend bright Czestochowa and shine at Ostrabrama.” …

Sign of Contradiction appeared first in Italian in 1977. It is a set of discourses given during a retreat held for the Pope (Paul VI) and some of his collaborators. As Cardinal Wyszynski noted in his foreword to the Italian edition, it is free from professional jargon. The standpoint is solidly traditional, the way of handling problems fresh and direct. The range of reference is what distinguishes it from other works of this genre. As well as the references one would expect to Scripture, Augustine, Thomas, there are many references to the early Fathers. Irenaeus is clearly a favorite: his “The glory of God is man alive” is one of the sayings to which he returns often. Of modern theologians the one he seems to find most sympathetic is Henri de Lubac, the leading figure among the Jesuits of the Lyon school; it is ironical that this group of men had a rough time under Pius XII. Then, there are references to Shakespeare and Goethe, to Feuerbach and to Rahner, Heidegger, Camus, Kolakowski, Ricoeur, and other contemporary thinkers. He has read much, and widely, and profited from his reading.

The following points in Sign of Contradiction seem of interest, as indicating John Paul II's style of thought.

He doesn't think that to be poor or to be oppressed by a...

(The entire section is 54,440 words.)