The Year of Three Popes
Voices of Authority
Illustrissimi: Letters from Pope John Paul I
The Dilemmas of Contemporary Religion
The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine Vol. III: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300)
Sign of Contradiction
Easter Vigil and Other Poems
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…
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