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The Abject Failure of Pope John Paul II

John Paul II [right]Introduction

On a recent visit to Poland I was quite unsurprised to find Polish television much the same as I had left it at the end of my last visit almost a year ago. Still full of its obsessive Polski-centric preoccupation, the advertising saturated with snake-oil cures for headache, rheumatism, rectal irritations, weak bladder, indigestion, flatulence, over-weight, toe-nail fungi and so on and the cynical exercise of opposition party leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s efforts to foment and exploit distrust of the Russians still on-going. What had changed, however, was that the national fixation with the campaign for canonisation of Pope John Paul II was now infused with a measure of optimistic agitation and excitement; they are apparently on the brink of success. The Vatican, no doubt, at their wits’ end.

Although matters to do with church, religion and the Papacy have never been of much interest to me I found it troubling to think of Pope John Paul II being elevated to the status of Sainthood. The Catholic God must be raising his brow with some concern.

A Jolly Old Pope

Of course, I never met the man personally, although I know an excellent joke about a group of Australian tourists who did, having set up their bar-b-cue in the grounds of the Vatican and had it blessed by his holiness*1, yet he seemed to me someone who had a good heart and meant well. His round, jolly face that seemed perpetually expressing warmth and empathy with what seemed to be a wise smile conjured a vastly different feeling to the tense, severe expression of his successor whose piercing eyes seemed cruel and soulless. Pope John Paul II seemed to me a man not of greatness but having a talent for inspiring a spirit of calm and peaceful cooperation in others; though it appeared to have been ineffective in his interactions with George W. Bush. They met twice before the war in Iraq of 2003. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II radiated a sense of benediction and welcome words; he was certainly not the sort of man to earn a reputation for casually dropping a few apparently innocent and perhaps ill-considered words having a remarkably potent effect of inflaming the opposition. In less interesting times Pope John Paul II would have been just the right man and might well have come to seem “Saintly”.

The Wrong Time and the Wrong Place

The opening decade of the 21st Century was indeed the wrong time for a gentle and well-meaning if unexceptional man to be Pope. With George W. Bush in the role of “useful idiot” occupying the driver’s seat and navigated from the back seat by the psychopathic greed and power-lust of The People Who Own Western Capitalism we have been dragged back to the insane and barbaric religious wars of the Middle Ages as if nothing has advanced in human civilisation other than our technological capacity to kill each other. We have inflamed hatred and religious fanaticism on all points of the triangle at a time when reason, mutual trust and cooperation are essential if we are to find rational solutions to our critically urgent problems of environment, over-population, over-consumption and over-pollution.

Far from addressing these problems we may well find ourselves embroiled in a century of bitter conflict with deranged capitalist and religious fanatics at the helm behind a wall of helmeted, black-leather robotic killers bristling all manner of crowd-control, oppressive legislation and the insane chaos of desperation arrayed to defend the tiller and stay the course against any hope or reason.

Pope John Paul II had little choice about his time but he did have choice about place and the right place for Pope John Paul II in the first week of March 2003 was clearly Baghdad. Arranging and announcing a visit to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein would have been a diplomatic coup de grace to any aspirations of invasion. More importantly, transcending the war itself, it could have provided a critical turning point in world affairs and an entirely different direction. The abject failure of Pope John Paul II stands out, I believe, in stark relief when we consider what might have been.

His holiness could not possibly have been unaware of the climate of world feeling about the situation and he must surely have sensed, as did ordinary people all over the world, that it was a critical moment in world affairs. On Saturday February 15th 2003 more than 30 million people participated in a global demonstration against the impending war. Governments across the spectrum, including major US allies had expressed objection. In the very seat of the Papal City more than 3 million people had marched in the streets of Rome and in London that same day more than two million. In my own city of Melbourne more than 300,000 people had filled the city streets; more than the largest demonstrations seen in that city at the height of unpopularity of the Vietnam War. Surely this burgeoning groundswell of public opinion constituted a mandate for assertive diplomatic action by a man in his position that should have prompted him to step forward on the world stage at the opening of the 21st Century to state that enough is enough of war and destructive madness.

Imagine for a moment the impact of such an action and the implications and possibilities that might have flowed from it. A request to Saddam Hussein for an audience with Pope John Paul II in Baghdad undoubtedly would have been seized upon instantly with the profound relief of a man in a desperate situation. The public exhibition of Pope John Paul II seeking and obtaining personal assurances of the absence of WMD or warlike future intentions from the Iraqi leader and remaining in Baghdad for a few days as a guest in a Muslim nation that prides itself on its hospitality. Shock and Awe with the Pope in Baghdad would have been out of the question, a few days of breathing space for all sides to reflect and consider, the wariness of initiating an invasion too soon after the Pope’s departure, without pause to measure the public mood; the window of opportunity for war would have been lost. By the end of March George W Bush’s aspirations of invasion would have been in tatters.

Imagine the implications of a Papal intervention in a crisis of civilisations by seeking and trusting to assurances; an incomprehensibly powerful gesture of goodwill and genuine commitment to peaceful coexistence of different spiritual worldviews.

Did Pope John Paul II simply fail to imagine? Did he consider that these were political affairs of men in which the church should not meddle? Was he too humble to step out and take the lead? I find it impossible to believe that he could not have felt some sense of responsibility to influence, as best he could, the course of events. There were already many westerners in Baghdad who perceived themselves as “human shields”; did this not suggest possibilities? These are not the wisdoms of hindsight; I for one envisaged and hoped for some action of this sort - at the time!

This, in my opinion, was a defining moment in the course of the fate of humanity, a moment when, if such an individual with the right vision and understanding and the courage and forthrightness to act decisively and with measured panache. This was Pope John Paul II’s moment in history, the moment that should have earned him Sainthood.

I can forgive a kindly old man with a good heart his limitations and his failure to act as was needed in a moment of such paramount importance for the future of humanity and our possibilities for realisation of a magnificent destiny with a newfound sense of harmony and goodwill among men to take us all forward with confidence.

However, it troubles me that in the ashes of Baghdad, some withered hand steeped in the blood of so many lost lives and tainted with such sins of destruction and violence should adorn this holy man with the accolade of Saint. In fact, it seemed to me quite disturbing that on the 4th of June 2004, George W Bush found time to visit the Vatican City to present Pope John Paul II with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Even more troubling is that just 15 months after the invasion, with the fires still raging and the Iraqi people still in the convulsions of their dying nation, Pope John Paul II should have accepted it.

1- "The party divides, one group going to the Vatican and agreeing to meet up there in the afternoon. After touring Rome all day the latter group arrive at the Vatican to find a great crowd due to the Pope making an appearance. They expect to have difficulty finding the other group but in the distance through the parted crowd, they see their friends have their bar-b-cue set up and to their amazement, apparently being blessed by the Pope. After all is done and the Pope has gone they rush to their friends gushing with questions. But in fact, gesturing to one on the left, then the other on the right, then pointing to the barbie and gesturing a wave over his shoulder the Pope had said “I want you and your mate to pack that thing up and piss off!”

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