Where the New Pope Stands

The Year of Three Popes

by Peter Hebblethwaite
Collins, 220 pp., $8.95

Voices of Authority

by Nicholas Lash
Patmos Press, 119 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Illustrissimi: Letters from Pope John Paul I

by Albino Luciani, translated by William Weaver
Little, Brown, 258 pp., $10.00

The Dilemmas of Contemporary Religion

by David Martin
St. Martin's, 160 pp., $14.50

The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine Vol. III: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300)

by Jaroslav Pelikan
University of Chicago Press, 333 pp., $17.50

Sign of Contradiction

by Karol Wojtyla
Seabury Press, 206 pp., $8.95

Easter Vigil and Other Poems

by Karol Wojtyla, translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
Random House, 81 pp., $5.00

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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.2 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.”3

Peter Hebblethwaite’s The Year of Three Popes is a brilliant—in this case the overused word isn’t too strong—piece of virtually instant history. It is judicious about Paul VI, emphasizing the two positive features of his reign, his openness to other Christians, especially to the Orthodox, and his perception of the signs of the times in…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.