John Paul II was a Pope both blessed and great. A special memoir.
In the autumn of 1991, I was in Italy for a conference on economics and religion in Foligno, a beautiful town south of Florence. One morning I was driven to Rome where, as I often did, I was staying overnight with the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. At dinner, a phone call came for me, for which I had to leave the table. It was the Vatican, and I was being invited for dinner with the Holy Father the very next evening. I should enter at the Bronze Door next to the Basilica, and the Swiss Guards would show me up. Back at the table, everyone was excited, no one more than I was, although I did my best to look suave and cool.
In a way, the background of the Pope’s invitation to dinner was, it seemed, the publication of my book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982. That book made two points that seemed to many others around the world, not only myself, useful to those who helped Pope John Paul II in the drafting of his historic encyclical of 1991, Centesimus Annus—the “hundredth year” after the first of all social encyclicals in 1891. The first point grew from my experience as a grandson of immigrants to the United States from Central Europe (the villages of the Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia). What they found in the United States was not only “capitalism” the economic system, but simultaneously the political system that protected their individual rights and the cultural system that strengthened the rights and duties of the free public exercise of multiple religious traditions under the protection of law. The United States also allowed for each people of the world to sound distinctive notes in the one national cultural symphony: English, German, Irish, Latin, Slavic, Jewish, etc. The tripartite definition of this free system—economic, political, and cultural—showed up very clearly in paragraph 42 of Centesimus Annus. (More on that encyclical later.)
My second political thesis was that the most under-reported fact of the 20th century was the death of socialism as a plausible idea for the future. In practice, it did not work. More than that, its underlying theories made it impossible for socialism to work. The best hope of the poor in the world was not socialism. The actual history of my own family and millions of other poor families showed Marxism to be the opiate of intellectuals and students. The much despised “capitalism,” combined with a polity of law and rights and a culture of spirit, routinely turned workers into middle-class families, with positive attitudes toward personal initiative and personal responsibility.
Two of the closest colleagues who expressed gratitude for my work (without necessarily agreeing with all of it) were John Paul II’s own immensely talented papal secretary, Monsignor (later Archbishop, and in 2006 Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow) Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the philosopher and Italian political leader Rocco Buttiglione.
After I arrived for dinner, during the very long climb up the three flights of stairs, accompanied by a serious Swiss Guard, my lungs were burning with the strain, but my tall, young guard was not even red in the face. I was ushered into the reception room where Monsignor Dziwisz met me. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, “we know who our friends are.” He told me Rocco was to be a guest, too, and should arrive shortly.
In about 1985, Rocco had raised very difficult questions for me (especially about the “common good”) when I first lectured on capitalism and democracy at the Catholic University of Milan, but over the years as he read more of my work he had come to grasp the good parts of it better than I did, and fixed them into his own vision. Later, become good friends, we were making plans to begin a summer program to bring Eastern European and American students together to study economics and democracy, preferably in the West. So it was great to learn that Rocco would be a guest, too. Rocco arrived, and then the Pope silently entered, with his trademark smile, slightly ironic, and in a white papal soutane.
A bishop from Poland who worked in the Vatican and whose English was fluent also joined us, so we were five. I was so awestruck I hardly said a word for a while. One thing I noticed is that Monsignor Dziwisz wanted to keep the conversation light, and instigated some bantering between Rocco and the Pope. Rocco was a professor at two Roman universities as well as the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, but the Pope had come to know him well in Krakow, where Rocco had gone to study the famous Polish phenomenologists. There Rocco learned Polish passably well, and became a good friend of Wojtyla, a fellow philosopher.
When Cardinal Wojtyla was then elected Pope John Paul II, he invited Rocco to come back to Italy with him as a close intellectual friend. In the autumn of 1978, the election of a man from behind the Iron Curtain to become the new Pope was a startling choice. It sent shockwaves throughout the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. The Communists immediately started laying plans to try to limit Pope Wojtyla’s influence, to undermine him, and if necessary to wipe him off the chessboard of European political leadership.
They feared Wojtyla, but they did not fear him enough. Wojtyla was a lot more clever than they, and nearly always moved before they did, a step ahead of them on the chessboard. By natural talent a warm-hearted and eloquent communicator, an actor who enjoyed being in crowds large or small, a skier, a poet, and a very brave man, Karol Wojtyla seized the imagination of the world almost immediately. He was young, vital, vigorous, and very handsome, with a flair for dramatic action and swift repartee.
When I had first seen him in Washington, D.C., on his first papal visit to the White House, standing alongside President Jimmy Carter, I was struck by the Pope’s naturalness and ease. It was a beaming Carter who seemed a little stiff.
Then, later, the Pope stood on the balcony of the priests’ house at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue, just east of Connecticut Avenue. My wife, Karen, had brought my excited mother with us, and we stood right below him, across the street. The happy crowd all around us filled to overflowing the street below him, and began to shout very loudly: “JOHN PAUL II, WE love YOU! JOHN PAUL II, WE love YOU!” After a little while, the Pope held up his arms to ask for a pause. He smiled and then shouted into the microphone: “JOHN PAUL II—I love YOU!” Laughing, clapping, and with not a little weeping, the crowd picked up as before. I was glad my mother and my wife were at my side, drinking in and enjoying every moment of it.
SOME MONTHS LATER, the Pope flew to the New World again, this time to Canada, to consecrate a new Eastern Catholic basilica, near Toronto. William Baroody, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, belonged to the Maronite Rite, one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and took me with him for the occasion. Our host was Stephen Roman, the Slovak immigrant who was called “the richest man in Canada.” Steve had bought cheap a lot of farmland to the west, under which some time later the largest uranium deposits in the world were found. From then on, wags said, Steve dealt only with heads of state.
Steve Roman belonged to the Byzantine Catholic Rite. It was typical of Pope John Paul II’s larger ambitions, even from the first, that he undertook this long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to consecrate a small Eastern Catholic basilica. All through history, unlike many other of the Eastern Rite churches, including the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox of Moscow, the Byzantines and the Maronites and some others stood tall in a long and faithful communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Pope took the view that 1,000 years of separation between Rome and Constantinople/Moscow was enough. He wanted, before he was done, to end it. In that, he didn’t quite succeed, but he made lots of valiant attempts and took many initiatives and made many visitations to Eastern patriarchs. It was a terribly annoyed Wojtyla (I have always imagined) who after his death protested to St. Peter that he had not been given a few more years to achieve the required unity of the Church of Christ.
On that occasion, with a fairly cold Toronto wind blowing our scarves about our faces along the whole reception line, the vigorous young Pope at last approached our small group. He lingered for some time with Roman and Baroody, and then looked at me closely and seemed trying to recall something as he briefly held my hand. Slightly younger than he, I had attended two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, at which Wojtyla of Krakow had emerged as a coming star, especially for his leadership on the 1965 document on religious liberty.
True, my report on the second session, The Open Church, became fairly well known among the world’s bishops. A Polish friend of mine assured me that the Pope knew of me from that time. Then, too, as I shall explain below, the Pope had been sent an early copy of the illegal Polish translation of my The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism being handed around in Poland in samizdat. Still, I always got the feeling that the Pope was a bit uneasy with my left-wing past. He asked some of his friends who knew me well some questions about me, they reported. One, from Philadelphia, gave him a very clear and clean recommendation.
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