WASHINGTON — In the Spring of 1978 I was in Rome on a glorious sunny morning, and after my matutinal coffee I strolled up the via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s for a visit. As I recorded in The Conservative Crack-Up over a decade later it was a time of “idiot whirl.” Suggestive of the whirl, that pert ignoramus, Jimmy Carter, was dithering through the last years of his idiot presidency. Inflation was singeing the dollars in our pockets. Industries were failing. America was derided around the world. There were new fanatics everywhere and crazy suicidal cults. The Rev. Jim Jones had just led 900 or so of his faithful to their poisonings.
The Piazza San Pietro was experiencing the whirl too. Yes, there were great schools of pious Christians swimming across the Piazza’s old gray stones and into the great cathedral, but it seemed there were lunatics everywhere. Seated next to a bored cop was a fat greasy man in his early 30s dressed only in a T-shirt, a pink diaper, and a baby’s bonnet. A demented woman carrying a birdcage was howling to the crowd. There were many others: dirty, tired-looking hippies from earlier in the decade now burned out and vacant. Several months later an obscure Polish cardinal would be elected Pope. Over the next few years the chaos of the Piazza receded. The idiot whirl of the Western world receded too. True, the narcissistic contingent of American politicians about to descend on St. Peter’s to exploit John Paul II’s funeral will return zaniness to the Vatican for a few hours, but then it will be back to normal.
After this Pope and all the history made since the late 1970s by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their confused Marxist-Leninist accomplice, Mikhail Gorbachev, the world is a saner place, albeit still troubled. The day one Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, Richard Nixon, still in disgrace, was visiting London. When informed of the Polish cardinal’s surprising election Nixon speculated to Members of Parliament in the House of Commons that here might be the “spark” to ignite the forces of freedom against Soviet domination throughout what was then called Eastern Europe. John Paul did that and much more, as every obituary has affirmed.
He revived the spiritual vigor of his Church, reinvigorated ecumenism, acknowledged Christianity’s debt to the Jews and the wrongs committed against them, and raised the dignity of human life for all to contemplate. Even in his last weeks he gave the suffering of the very old meaning. He was a great proponent of freedom but he insisted it was meaningless unless it pursued the virtues. He was, after all, at bottom an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher. He championed reason. John Paul II has been the greatest Pope of the last 500 years, as well as one of the great political figures of the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and of course Hitler, Mao, and Stalin now have a silver-haired man of God in their ranks.
Most of this has been dilated upon during the worldwide spectacle of the Pope’s death, a spectacle unlike anything that might have been anticipated, we are told. His intellect, goodness, and political acumen have all been remarked on, but few have noted its provenance. Unlike any of the other historic figures of the century, the Pope was a mystic. Prayer and contemplation of God was the source of all he did in life.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1940 the 20-year-old Wojtyla came under the spiritual influence of a deeply religious middle-aged layman, Jan Tyranowski, who presided over something called the “Living Rosary.” It consisted of groups of fifteen or so young men devoted to prayer and contemplation. From this experience Wojtyla gained his life-long interest in the mysticism of the Carmelite order and the teachings of the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite, St. John of the Cross. While the Nazis prowled Poland, Wojtyla meditated and deepened his understanding of St. John’s mystical communion with God. All the rest of his life, no matter the demands the world placed on him, his foremost concern was his own communion with God.
This Pope would pray four hours a day, sometimes more. He had as many responsibilities as any head of state, but all his decisions depended on prayer and contemplation. That is what a mystic is, even when he is the head of a 2,000-year-old institution comprised of a billion constituents. Now all the politicians who have hustled off to Rome to bid the Pope adieu surely want to be the best that they can be and do the best job they can, but would any of them set aside hours every day to pray when other responsibilities beckoned? That sounds very unprofessional to me. But then I have missed things over the years.
Reviewing that memorable 1978 morn in Rome as I wrote it up in The Conservative Crack-Up, I noticed that nowhere in the book did I mention John Paul II. I was writing about the condition of conservatism in the late 20th century, yet somehow I missed the Pope. After the huge sendoff the world has given him, it will be difficult to repeat that omission.
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