The Tragic Pope?

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

by His Holiness John Paul II, edited by Vittorio Messori, translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee
Knopf, 244 pp., $20.00

Prayers and Devotions from Pope John Paul II introduction by

edited and with an Bishop OSA van Lierde, Peter Canisius Johannes, translated by Firman O'Sullivan
Viking/a Giniger book, 466 pp., $17.95

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Liguori Publications, 803 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Papacy

by Bernhard Schimmelpfennig, translated by James Sievert
Columbia University Press, 330 pp., $20.00 (paper)

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

Was the Pope subjecting us to a Great Wu routine? It seemed so. Let Orson Welles, always a bit of a Wu himself, explain:

Mister Wu is a classic example [of theatrical hype]—I’ve played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour shrieking, “What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?” “What is he like, this Mister Wu?” and so on. Finally, a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mr. Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, “Mister Wu!!!” The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, “Isn’t that guy playing Mr. Wu a great actor!” That’s a star part for you!1

The release of the Pope’s multi-million-dollar project had clear marks of Wu upon it. The books and tapes were warehoused, embargoed, surrounded with the hush-hush of great revelations withheld. Then the drum-beat of anticipation ended in a clash of publicity’s cymbals. The books came sluicing out, in twenty-one languages, with television cameras recording their arrival in the stores, their opening, their (disappointing) sales.

In other cases, there would have been an explosion of disapproval if readers found there was nothing new in a book so wrapped in conspiratorial trappings. One looks silly striving to hide a thing that is not there. But for a pope of dogma and tradition, there is no shame in saying nothing new. He is not supposed to make reckless additions to the “deposit of faith.” Only God can issue new commandments, a new revelation.

The promoters of the book seem hard put to justify their exercise in mystification. Vittorio Messori, the journalist whose questions form the basis of the book, claims that the new thing is the format—the Pope promised to comply (but ultimately did not) with a request to be interviewed at length on television. John Paul II, who required that the questions be submitted beforehand, wrote his answers at leisure and sent them back to the journalist through his press representative. This is what Messori calls “a conversation.”

A snake-oil salesman has to think his audience obtuse in order to keep up his act. So Messori boasts that the Pope answered all his questions “without avoiding one of them”—though anyone who turns the page will find that the Pope avoided the very first one. After a long deferential windup, Messori asked: “Haven’t you ever had, not doubts certainly, but at least questions and problems (as is human) about the truth of this Creed?” Despite the tuckings and bowings (not doubts, as is human), he was asking a personal question. The Pope gave an institutional answer: even Peter had trouble with the idea that God could suffer. Nothing about the Pope’s own doubts (if any). Yet the…

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