Heaven can wait

Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way

Karol Wojtyla <em>Jonathan Cape, 230pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN

I haven't read a book like this since I was in First Holy Communion class. No, that's not strictly true - there are elements of standard autobiography and polemic woven into this text. But what takes me back to the days of short trousers is the voice of a benign elderly priest explaining the marvels and miracles of Catholic life.

The first third of Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way revolves around the time in 1958 when Karol Wojtyla, still a couple of years short of his 40th birthday, was named a bishop, the first step in an extraordinary rise through the ranks that has made him the first non-Italian in 455 years to preside at God's business address on earth, the first Slav to sit on St Peter's throne, and the youngest man elected to the office in 130 years. There is a series of nice (bland word, but appropriate) anecdotes about how he had to cut short a canoeing trip with youngsters when he heard the news, but insisted on returning to complete the adventure.

There follows a simpleton's guide to ecclesiastical ceremonies and paraphernalia, plus a ringing defence of a bishop's right to do and say anything he believes is justified by the gospel. There is a strong and inspiring account of his clash with the communist Polish authorities over building a church in the new Krakow suburb of Nova Huta. The future pope famously forced the atheist regime to lift its ban.

As you read the chronicle of John Paul's middle years, however, you cannot help but reflect how often he has failed to practise what he preached. Today, priests who become involved in political stand-offs (as he once did) are disciplined and silenced. The clerics who maintained a critical presence in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, following the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, were rewarded for their dedication with a public ticking-off by John Paul, who wagged his finger at them in front of the cameras at Managua International Airport.

The Sandinistas' problem was that they were influenced by Karl Marx. For John Paul, as this account makes clear, Marxism is up there with condoms and female priests as the greatest evils of the modern age. This fact explains both the highs of his papacy - particularly his extraordinary role as the spark from heaven which ignited the revolutions that brought down the Iron Curtain - and the lows. Because of his repugnance for anything that even smells of Marxism, he has tried to suppress the widely popular liberation theology movement in Latin America, with the result that the Church there is now split down the middle, with the radical element, grouped around base communities, scarcely acknowledging Rome's authority. His legacy will be a de facto schism.

John Paul doesn't give interviews, so it is revealing to hear him talking in these pages in an often informal way. It makes a man who has become an institution suddenly seem human again.

Usually when we hear his voice in public it is reading a sermon. Of late, as Parkinson's disease takes a terrible toll on his body, his words have been stumbling, often incoherent. Anyone else would resign. In 1983, he inserted a clause in the new Code of Canon Law - the Church's rule book - to allow reigning pontiffs to stand down, but now that the moment has come he will not take advantage of it.

It may be that he is simply past being able to make decisions, and that it suits the cardinals around John Paul for him to continue his half-life while they run the show. More likely, his innate sense of being divinely ordained, something that thunders repeatedly through these pages, will not let him step aside. The only way he will rise and be on his way, you deduce, will be when he ascends to a better place.

This book will be picked over by the many scholars and commentators lining up to write his definitive life story, and they will find a few nuggets in here. Most readers, however, will find that the piety of Uncle Karol's fireside chats may well defeat them. This is an unusual offering from a mainstream publisher; then again, his previous outing in print, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, written in much the same style, was an international bestseller. God moves, as John Paul has no doubt said on many occasions, in mysterious ways.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald