Jason Berry: The Paradoxical Pope

Roundup: Talking About History

Jason Berry, in the Boston Globe (4-4-05):

WHEN JOHN Paul II in 1979 made his first trip back to Poland as pope, he was determined to change the course of modern history. The stirring sermons exhorting human freedom, spiritual freedom, had long resonance through the final decade of the Cold War. He orchestrated clandestine support to Solidarity leaders in Poland, keeping pressure on the Communist regime. In 1989, when we watched the Soviet Empire crumble on television, John Paul stood a victor on the world stage, his very person transcending Stalin's famously cynical remark: "How many divisions has the Pope?"

   In like measure, the middle years of his papacy demonstrated a remarkable honesty about a runaway consumerist mentality in Western capitalism and the church's own sins, committed in the Crusades, toward Jews, Muslims, even Galileo.

    These and other virtues secure his role as one of history's great popes. An actor in his youth, he had a charm and charisma that captivated millions on his many travels. With a refined sense of drama, he turned his final days into a farewell act that, as many have said, made his physical suffering a reminder of Christ's sacrifice.

   And yet, as the great media machinery gears up for the funeral and conclave at the Vatican to choose his successor, the solemnity and pageantry are likely to obscure another reality: that of the fractured church that this pope leaves behind.

   More men have left the priesthood than entered in recent decades, yet John Paul was intransigent on the law of mandatory celibacy. Instead, against mounting evidence of sexual conflicts in a troubled clerical world, he refused to engage in the fearless introspection of the church internal.

   This papacy is riddled with paradoxes.

   A champion of human rights to people under the boot heel of dicatorships, he chose as secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former papal ambassador to Chile who befriended the sadistic dictator Pinochet and tried to intervene on Pinochet's behalf when he was facing indictment by a Spanish court.

   Several weeks ago, when Sodano met with Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, he awkwardly asked her help in defusing a sex abuse lawsuit filed against the Vatican by a Kentucky lawyer, something over which she had no control. ...

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