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Book Review: The Pontiff in Winter -Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II by John Cornwell

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Pope John Paul II was a long time dying. Plagued by illness and accidents for over a decade, there seemed to be continuous speculation about his state of health. Yet he outlived many of those tapped to succeed him, and a good number of those who foretold his death. His determination to remain in office to the end generated enormous respect for the man, something reflected in the turnout at his funeral.

Most biographies of John Paul II have characterised him as a man of immovable integrity in a world of shifting principles. His role in liberating Poland from communism and bringing down the Iron Curtain, along with his travels across the world, enhanced his reputation as an man of action, a dynamic figure doing battle with the forces of evil.

But, as John Cornwell’s book illustrates, the pontificate of John Paul II can be interpreted in a very different light. The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II is not the hatchet job it has been described as by some commentators, but it does offer a critical assessment of John Paul’s 26 years in office.

The book’s early chapters retrace Karol Wojtyla’s road to Rome. It’s clear that his Polish upbringing was a crucial factor in colouring his world view. The premature loss of a brother and then his parents, his early devotion to the Virgin Mary, occupation of Poland by the Nazis, then takeover by the communists – all would make their mark on the man who would be Pope.

Having dealt with Wojtyla’s rise through the ranks of the Church and his surprise elevation to the papacy in 1978, the author goes on to describe how John Paul II set about changing his Church. The Pope’s historic visit to Poland, his support for Solidarity, and his travels to the four quarters of the globe were the most visible signs that here was a very different pontiff from his predecessors.

But it was the attempt on the Pope’s life in 1981 that, Cornwell suggests, took the pontificate into a stratospheric dimension. His brush with death convinced John Paul that he had been saved for a reason, and that reason becomes more apparent as Cornwell deals with the mystery known as the third secret of Fatima.

The apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children at Fatima in central Portugal in 1917 has been linked to World War II, the rise and fall of communism and the near-death of the Pope himself. What emerges from this part of the story is John Paul’s conviction that he was always on the right track, and that divine intervention on the day he was attacked offers proof positive.

That’s a powerful message to those who might be contemplating dissent, as Cornwell underlines: "He who holds the power to make public revelation out of secrets received in private visions stands in a vastly unequal power relationship with the rest of the Catholic community".

An entire chapter is given over to the Pope’s views on sex, a conscience-wrenching area for many Catholics. Cornwell’s view is that, because of his convoluted language, the Pope’s efforts to persuade his flock to follow him on sex within marriage were always doomed to fail. His volume of teachings, Theology of the Body, says Cornwell, also highlighted that the Pope had no idea what he was talking about. Cornwell notes:

    There is no attempt to describe the experience of love in terms of personal histories: emotion, financial and work stress, children, illness and age … Nor is there a single reference in the vast 600-page compendium to the enjoyment of sex, the delights, the disappointments, the suffering and loneliness of bereavement and desertion. He talks of the ‘ecstasy’ of sex as a quasi-spiritual experience in terms that are detached from real life.

The author portrays the pontiff in his later years as a hardliner, driving through his policies without much regard to opposing views. Dissenting theologians are made to explain themselves, then dismissed from their posts; calls for women priests are rejected now and forever, artificial contraception is characterised as being part of a “culture of death”, as are condoms, even when used as a barrier to AIDS.

Of course, if the Pope can’t express his views about morality in the modern world, who can? And for John Paul II, this wasn’t merely an academic matter. He believed he was in the business of saving souls, and only his way would work.

All of this would be easier to accept if it weren’t for the fact that figures even at the highest levels of the Church, were not buying into the view from the Vatican. Cornwell cites the example of Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium, who in 2004 went on record as saying that someone having sex with an HIV-positive partner should wear a condom for their own protection, rather than as a method of birth control.

The book highlights other inconsistencies that have caused many Catholics to leave the Church or to ignore papal teaching. The difference between the stern treatment of Father Bob Nugent, an American priest ministering to homosexuals and that of Fr Marcial Maciel, a close friend of the Pope accused of sexual abuse, is striking. Nugent was investigated by Cardinal Ratzinger’s office and eventually forbidden to taken part in any further pastoral work with the gay community. In contrast, six years on from accusations by seminarians that Father Maciel abused them, the Vatican had failed to issue a response.

While the book provides no evidence that John Paul II was fully aware of the scale of the sexual abuse scandal rocking his Church, Cornwell is scathing in his reaction to what little the Pope did say about it. “John Paul’s first thoughts … were not for the victims but for the image of the Catholic priesthood", he contends, "and the effect of the repercussions of this abuse on ‘fine priests’. And while he was ‘afflicted’ by the sins of his brother priests, he was merely ‘concerned’ for the victims.”

The author also believes a bad situation was made far worse as direct consequence of the Pope’s policy of drawing power away from bishops and back to the centre. The bishops, he says, acted like dis-empowered employees:

    They did not act decisively, by laicising erring priest and turning them over to the civil authorities, because they did not believe that they had the authority to do so. Bishops did not fail because they were weak and venal men; they failed because of generations of increasing enfeeblement of their office by Rome.

The big question mark hanging over Pontiff is how in control was John Paul II in his final years? Cornwell describes meetings the Pope had with official visitors where John Paul was barely able to make himself understood. During a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the pontiff appeared to forget that he’d written an encyclical on Christian unity. The suggestion is that the Church was being run by his officials at the Vatican. This would put a different complexion on things – would the John Paul of 1978 have responded differently to the sexual abuse crisis?

Unsurprisingly, the present Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, is a looming presence in this book. He’s here condemning dissenting theologians, there proclaiming homosexuality as an “intrinsic evil”, and reappearing again to explain the third secret of Fatima.

Perhaps most interesting was Ratzinger’s intervention that drove a coach and horses through the Vatican’s policy on relations with other churches. In 1998, he issued a declaration that other Christian denominations were “not Churches in the proper sense”. This caused enormous offence among Anglicans and Lutherans, who had been striving for years to achieve better relations with Rome. Since becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has insisted that one of his priorities is Christian unity. Only time will tell whether he can heal the wounds which he himself is perceived to have caused.

John Paul II is on the fast track to sainthood, making any criticism by Catholics of his pontificate all the more difficult. Yet the issues that John Cornwell raises in The Pontiff in Winter were not buried with John Paul in his tomb. The sexual abuse crisis has not fully played itself out; AIDS is wiping out families across Africa; seminaries, convents and churches are empty or closing. These problems may not have been of the late Pope’s making, but to suppress an open debate on their causes will make solutions near impossible.

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  • Mark Nemetz

    I found an incredible book which I just read on being Gay, Spirituality, the Catholic priesthood. I could not put it down!

    That Undeniable Longing – My Journey to and from the Priesthood
    By Mark Tedesco
    Academy Chicago Publishers
    ISBN: 0-89733-542-2
    Price: $23.95

    This honesty in this book is overwhelming. Yes, it tells the life of a priest whose life was filled with Latin, tradition, celibacy, poverty, and helping others find their way. It is the story of one who dedicated his life to the church, who struggled with his own identity and faith. It tells the life of a priest, of a gay priest.

    Yet there is something more to Tedesco’s account than the circumstances of the seminary and a catholic parish. The title hints at the essence of the account: there is a longing which is so human, which is so fundamental to existence, that anyone of any or no religious background can relate to this story. It is one who searches for meaning, for love and happiness, finding avenues in some directions and dead ends in others. It is the story of one who looked for the answers from without instead of within. It is the story of one who overcame much fear and uncertainty, who reached a sense of fulfillment which was very enlightening as I went from chapter to chapter.

    This book engrossed me from the first page, as he asks himself : “How did I arrive at this point? Could I ever have imagined, long ago on a winter day in Rome, that I would find myself on this new path, my dreams not shattered, but transformed. And that elusive, relentless desire, for happiness – where is it leading me?” The reader is drawn in to ask the same questions: do I have any regrets? What choices have I made that I would make differently now?

    The life of a priest is not easy. The author recounts priestly life from the “inside”, giving a rare glimpse of what it is like to be a father to his people. He experiences deeply the confines of being a priest, and we are carried on his journey, which began at a monastery outside of Rome at which a pseudo saint had much influence, to the North American College, the most prestigious American seminary, located in the Vatican.

    You will feel joy, you will laugh, you will be angry and frustrated, you will be carried by this story, and you will feel redeemed at the end.

    Once I started the book I could not put it down. I found myself examining myself, my sense of meaning, my faith, my life beyond the everyday duties with which I fill my time.

    Mark went through these things and came out on the other side. It is a fascinating journey that you will find yourself on when you pick up this book!

  • CAH

    Very good!
    It brings out the author’s ambiguities very nicely!
    Keep up the good work.

  • This article has been selected as an Editors’ Pick. Congratulations!

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!