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Plenty of insights into character of John Paul II in pope's new book

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2004

VATICAN CITY (AP) Ever since communism came crashing down in his native Poland and across Soviet-dominated eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II has been thanking God for ending a dark era for believers.

Just how John Paul himself helped topple the communist regimes, and has struggled since to preserve the Roman Catholic identity in Poland, becomes clearer with the publication this month of his new book, the fourth of his 25-year pontificate.

''Get Up, Let Us Go'' is spiced with what the Italian daily Corriere della Sera calls ''tiny episodes and very personal secrets'' that give new insights into Karol Wojtyla and his papacy, if no major revelations.

Described by his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls as ''recollections and reflections'' centered on Wojtyla's 20 years as bishop in Poland, the book also includes anecdotes from his papacy.

One unifying theme is the struggle against communism, whether it is a reference to his desire to return home as pope or his mocking attempts by authorities in Poland to make Sunday a working day.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has credited John Paul with being a major force in the fall of communism, and certainly his first visit home in 1979 a few months after assuming the papacy during the height of the Cold War was a catalyst to change.

Now John Paul reveals that he viewed his inaugural trip as pope, to Mexico in January 1979, as a ''kind of 'visa' that could open the way to a pilgrimage to Poland.''

''I thought the communists in Poland would not be able to refuse me a visit to my homeland if I were received by a nation with a secular constitution, like Mexico had.'' That June, the pope made his first visit to Poland.

The book recounts communist efforts to suppress the church in Poland during his years as a bishop, Wojtyla's clashes with authorities to protect it and of clandestine meetings he organized with intellectuals and scientists.

Much of this is already known, including a celebrated battle to get a church built in the industrial Krakow suburb of Nowa Huta.

In one chapter, John Paul talks about mandatory celibacy for priests of the Roman Catholic Church, rejecting the idea that it leaves priests living in seclusion. ''Personally, I've never felt lonely,'' he writes.

But he also acknowledges that priests of the church's Eastern rite, who are allowed to marry, ''have given fine proof of their pastoral zeal.''

''In particular, in the struggle against communism, the Eastern married priests were no less heroic than the celibate ones,'' John Paul says.

Mondadori, the Italian publisher which holds the worldwide rights to the book, had a first edition run of 500,000 copies in Italy, while the book also went on sale in Polish, French, German and Spanish.

Mondadori said it is still negotiating the English language rights key if there's hope in achieving the success of John Paul's first book, ''Crossing the Threshold of Hope,'' which sold 20 million copies around the world after publication a decade ago. The official translated title of the new book could change slightly when it published in English.

Students of the papacy may find some of the pope's comments surprisingly frank.

Among those singled out for praise is Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, whose veiled calls through the years for changes in the church have endeared him to liberals.

John Paul said Martini's preaching ''has attracted multitudes of people, to whom he revealed the treasure of the Word of God.''

In another chapter, he speaks of his passion for the theater as a young man and that someone had once said: ''You're talented ... You would have been a great actor if you stayed in theater.''

He explained he gave up such a career in the face of the tragedy of World War II.

As George Weigel wrote in his biography of John Paul, ''Some have suggested that, confronted with the horror of Nazi-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla retreated into a 'religious quietism.'''

But as Weigel said and the pope in this book underlines: ''Wojtyla deliberately chose the power or resistance through culture, through the power of the word.''

For the first time, the pope also states directly that Iraqi authorities didn't allow him to visit Ur, the traditional birthplace of the prophet Abraham. He had hoped to stop in Ur at the start of a pilgrimage to biblical sites in 2000. In the past, the Vatican said only that the Saddam Hussein's government explained it was unable to organize the trip.

Other entries are less surprising.

He praises the ''exceptional theological preparation'' of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's guardian of Church orthodoxy, and describes him as a ''trusted friend.''

And he recalls that in October 2002 ''I had the joy'' of raising Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, to sainthood.



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