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22 January 1999

Why the Pope moved me to tears

Cristina Odonethinks that the left should honour John Paul II more than it does

By Cristina Odone

It was like waiting for Godot. In a modern conference chamber at the Vatican, I was one of 50 European “men and women of culture” (a flattering description, but not mine) who took part in a four-day symposium grandly titled “A New Culture for Europe on the Threshold of the New Millennium”. Europe never sounded so good: Charity! Fidelity! Brotherhood! The historian from Luxembourg, the professor from Paris, the film-maker from Warsaw took to the podium and reeled off the catalogue of virtues with the enthusiasm a Eurocrat normally reserves for a batch of new directives. Yet our host, John Paul II, was nowhere to be seen.

After every session that spluttered with vehement condemnations of “the plagues of promiscuity” and our “tragic, godless century”; after every lecture studded with attacks on abortion and divorce, I would approach Fr Peter Fleetwood of the Pontifical Council for Culture: “He will be here tomorrow, won’t he?” Because, no matter how honoured I felt to be part of this elite, or how excited I was by their vision of a new Christian continent where the gospel, not the euro, served as common currency, what I really wanted to do was meet the Pope.

On the last day, John Paul II finally joined us. From the moment he appeared on the dais, frail, hunched and slow of gait, Europe receded into the distance and Karol Wojtyla took over the foreground.

Despite a shrunken frame, a voice slurred with medication and hands trembling from Parkinson’s, John Paul II still generates the kind of electricity that myths are founded on. He sat enthroned before us, a cardinal behind him, a trio of official photographers jockeying for position around him. He looked as if at any moment the weight of his disease would lift, and he would be released, spring-like, to bounce into energetic action.

His enthusiasm was equally undimmed; in careful, low-voiced French he spoke of his “gratitude” to the participants, of his “joy” at our conference, and reminded us that although “not all Europeans may be Christian, the Continent has been deeply marked by the imprint of the gospel . . . you are the witnesses to our contemporaries’ growing desire to understand the meaning of existence. Your mission must be to restore the search for beauty, goodness, and truth to the people of today . . .”

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Entrusted with such a task, every member of our temporary spiritual think-tank – a Demos with a divine mission – looked properly humbled. When the Pope met each of us for a few individual words of thanks, even Paivi Setala, a feminist historian from Finland, dropped to her knees to kiss the papal hand. I did the same, tears stinging my eyes.

As he listened to our chairman, Cardinal Paul Poupard (a dapper, clever Frenchman who could quote St Ignatius Loyola and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in the space of a brief exchange) summarise our sessions, his blue eyes scanned the room like searchlights seeking stowaways, filling the sinners present with not a little unease. Meet those eyes and you have no doubt that the man before you is capable of doing anything – and worse, of making you do anything. The story doing the rounds among Romans is that after a few pointed words from Wojtyla on the sanctity of marriage, the mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, secretly married his companion of 15 years.

The Pope’s implacable will bears little resemblance to that of the spiritual shepherd who leads his flock; or even to the philosopher who must score a cerebral point (time and again, his encyclicals have argued their traditionalist position on the basis of reason as well as faith); rather, it resembles the unflinching determination generals use to lead men into battle – or into challenging totalitarian regimes of the right and left. “How many divisions has the Pope?” asked Stalin. Yet John Paul II has achieved things far beyond tanks or cruise missiles.

“For many Poles he is a national hero first, a pope second,” explained Zbigniew Nosowski, the editor of Wiez, the Polish Catholic monthly. Indeed, it is impossible, in Wojtyla’s presence, to think of his being content to save souls or collect spiritual scalps: the leader of the world’s 900 million Catholics must shape events – whether it be his stand against the bombing of Iraq or the secret plot with Lech Walesa to bring down the communist regime in his homeland.

During his extraordinary 20-year papacy, the former cardinal of Krakow has angered liberals with his pronouncements on birth control (it’s unnatural), abortion (it’s murder) and homosexuality (forbidden). He has unflinchingly declared his allegiance to a set of values – fidelity within marriage and chastity outside it; the nuclear family; the right of the unborn child – that many New Statesman readers would regard as antiquated and absurd, if not oppressive and dangerous.

And yet, this is the man whose open-air masses in Haiti, Chile and El Salvador throbbed with such exhortations to freedom that they led almost immediately to popular uprisings and the toppling of right-wing dictatorships. This is the world leader who has repeatedly condemned the empty materialism and greed of unfettered capitalism – and asked us to revoke third-world debts. To millions of the world’s poor, he is almost the only effective spokesman they have. Study an encyclical like Veritatis Splendor and you will find a far more impassioned defence of equality than the half-hearted bleats about our middle-class society bandied about in Britain today.

And, further, John Paul II’s refusal to compromise, which so riled his detractors, has come slowly to represent something altogether more admirable at a time when politicians perform ridiculous ideological twists and turns in pursuit of a vote, a seat or a perk; and other church leaders cut their cassocks to fit the fashions of the day.

As he sat there on the dais before us, it was impossible not to remember the church image of the pontiff as a rock. Not everyone may wish to cling to it – but it is most emphatically there.