Timothy Garton Ash: The Pope Was the Greatest Actor of the Age

Roundup: Talking About History

Timothy Garton Ash, in the Guardian (4-4-05):

The world lived this death. It was a global Calvary. People from every corner of the earth gathered in St Peter's Square, peering up at those two windows of the papal apartment, illuminated against the night sky. Across five continents, Christians, Jews and Muslims joined them through television. Marcello, from Rio de Janeiro, emailed CNN: "We are watching the agony of the greatest man of our time." Mohamed, from Birmingham, emailed the BBC: "He will be missed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike."

What does this tell us? It tells us that Pope John Paul II was the first world leader. We talk of Bush, Blair or Hu Jintao as "world leaders", but they are merely national leaders who have a world impact. That's true even of Nelson Mandela, his closest contender for Marcello's title of "greatest man of our time".

Pope John Paul II uniquely combined three elements. He was the head of the world's largest supranational organisation of individual human beings. (The UN is an organisation of states; the Islamic umma is not an organisation.) He believed withunshakeable conviction that his message was universal, applying equally to every man, woman and child - Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And he seized the technological opportunity of bringing that message personally to almost every country on earth, thanks to jet aeroplanes and television. In short, he made the world his parish. No one had ever done this before. No one could.

As an agnostic liberal, I don't feel qualified to judge what he meant for the Catholic church. But I think I can judge what he meant for the world. John Paul II was, quite simply, the greatest political actor of the last quarter-century. I use the word "actor" in a double sense. Theatre was the second passion of the young Karol Wojtyla, even in Nazi-occupied Poland, and he was a talented stage performer. Before the onset of Parkinson's disease, he had a lovely voice. The actor John Gielgud described his delivery as "perfect". He had this extraordinary ability to speak to a crowd of a million people so that each and every one felt he was talking to them individually. He spoke in images as well as words (look at that photo of him in a sombrero carrying a Mexican child) and his personal warmth came across on television.

We also use the words "political actor" to mean a person who makes things happen in the world, as in the portentous American phase "a global player". I watched at close quarters John Paul II's impact on the Soviet bloc, from his election in 1978 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. No one can prove conclusively that he was a primary cause of the end of communism. However, the major figures on all sides - not just Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader, but also Solidarity's arch-opponent, General Wojciech Jaruzelski; not just the former American president George Bush Senior but also the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev - now agree that he was. I would argue the historical case in three steps: without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989.

Karol Wojtyla's political vision included the reunification of Europe. So long as he still had breath enough to speak, he talked of eastern and western Europe as the continent's two lungs. He lived to see this vision realised, as eight central and east European states, including his beloved Poland, joined the European Union last May.

Yet his largest legacy may lie not in the first world (of democratic capitalism), which he inhabited and enlarged, or the second world (of communism), which he destroyed, but in what we used to call the third world. John Paul II was a consistent spokesman for the half of humankind who live on less than $2 a day. This is also the part of the world where most Catholics are now to be found. He preached, tirelessly, every person's right to a minimum of human dignity. "I speak," he said, "in the name of those who have no voice." It was not just in communist-ruled eastern Europe that he spoke up for freedom. Opening an old file of newspaper cuttings, the first one I find is headlined "Pope takes issue with Stroessner on freedom". It records him reading the Paraguayan military dictator a fierce lesson about the importance of human rights and of free speech....

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