Yesteryear Europe, April – Pope John Paul II

26 Apr,2016 By Jagabond

Was Pope John Paul II the first ‘cool’ pope? The current pope is getting accolades for his progressive views on social issues, and John Paul II can’t compete with that (e.g. views on contraception, same sex relationships, abortion, etc.), but growing up in the 1980’s I recall him getting more media attention than I expected out of a religious figure. He also had the privilege of good timing, as communism was ready to fall…aided by Russia’s ill-advised war with Afghanistan, which weakened the USSR significantly. Luckily he had an international partner in President Reagan to help facilitate the demise of communism in Poland and other countries.

the pope and reagan in gdansk, poland

I also remember the hordes of media descending on his death, in April of 2002. Was this the beginning of the 24 hour news cycle? The ‘pope death watch’ hounded television sets for days, and was sickening, in my opinion. We were waiting for the Vatican to pull the curtain and eventually release the smoke, signalling the death of the Pope and the naming of his successor, and it all seemed very archaic. For one who preached humility for most of his life, I doubt he would’ve wanted to go out like this, with such a spectacle surrounding his death.

It wasn’t until later when I traveled to Poland that I learned stories of the Pope as a man…born Karol Wojtyla. He was flirting with the priesthood when Krakow got invaded by the Nazis…this led to an occupation that Wojtyla would later call ‘bestiality’. His university was taken over and classes were cancelled, so he went underground. He trained for the priesthood while his city was facing an ungodly situation. He’s documented as saving many Jews during his time…and going by Schindler’s words ‘he who saves one life saves the world entire.’ Poland, especially Krakow, recognizes Wojtyla with a multitude of statues and monuments…even one carved out of salt.

pope statue in krakow, poland

pope statue in polish salt mine

Krakow isn’t without its pope detractors, as I saw this interesting piece of street art that I think speaks to the authoritarianism of the Catholic church…note the ‘Never Follow’ remark in the piece.

street art in krakow, poland

In May 1980, a Turkish man named Mehmet Ali Agca combed through a crowd of people and fired four shots at Pope John Paul II…all four hit their mark. The pope was critically injured and survived, while Agca was immediately apprehended and sentenced to life imprisonment by an Italian court. Where things get really strange is that the Pope, while still in his hospital bed, asked people to pray for his ‘brother’ Agca. He formally forgave him for the attempted murder, and was instrumental in convincing the Italian government to pardon him years later. Before his pardon, the Pope visited him multiple times while imprisoned, and they developed a friendship. Okay now…I know the pope is supposed to be a better person than me, but this is light years beyond what I’m capable of. If someone shoots me, and nearly kills me…I think that our chances of being buddies is likely up in smoke. I admire doing the Christian thing and forgiving, and I understand it…I just don’t think that I could do it. Here’s the understatement of the year…the pope is a better man than me.

solidarity museum in gdansk, poland

“It all began after a Pole became the pope. His words awakened the Polish nation and other nations followed.” These are the words of Lech Walesa, an unemployed electrician in Gdansk, Poland who led the solidarity movement that helped topple communism in his country. Leading this new pro-labor party, he withstood imprisonment during martial law to bring Poland out of the communist regime. He later spoke of the pope by saying “John Paul II is the most important person in my life…I owe him a lot, and I wanted to thank him…without him there would be no end of communism or at least it would have happened much later, and the end would have been bloody.” This beautiful monument to solidarity may not have been constructed if not for the Pope.

solidarity monument in gdansk, poland

The pope also had an impact in Lithuania, visiting the country shortly after communist rule ended there, and declaring the hill of crosses outside Sialuiai a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. To this day it’s a pilgrimage site for those remembering the oppressive times of the previous regime, and how the people overcame it.

hill of crosses in lithuania

That all being said, I didn’t necessarily agree with his beatification, as it sounds more like a ‘hall of fame’ for religious figures. Just like baseball players need that magic number of 500 home runs, popes need to have two proven miracles to their credit. The fact that they retrospectively identify these miracles is what I have a problem with…it seems like digging to me, with a bias to try and find these things in the past. In addition, the fact that mankind decides on who becomes a saint and who doesn’t seems a bit upside-down to me.

I do feel he brought back some legitimacy and started to reform the Papal legacy, though he was clearly tarnished by the sex scandals in the Catholic church. Before him, there was a long history in Europe of popes abusing power. I remember being in Avignon, France and hearing of a pope who basically purchased the entire city for himself…not exactly practicing humility. John Paul II had his flaws, as he was only a man, but maybe he started to raise the standard so people like the current pope could use his power to influence a positive geopolitical change.

“Social justice cannot be attained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.” – Pope John Paul II






4 Responses to “Yesteryear Europe, April – Pope John Paul II”

  1. Linda Says:

    Great post and photos, thank you so much for sharing.

  2. jagabond Says:

    Thank you!

  3. Joella Says:

    Beautiful article and very enlightening to me.

  4. jagabond Says:

    Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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