Friday, April 08, 2005

"Reverend Uncle": An Encomium

As a boy, I saw the movie based on the Morris West novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn in the title role. It has remained for years one of my most beloved films.

In the story, a Russian bishop is released from a Siberian prison, and is elevated to the cardinalate by an aging Pope, who soon dies. By acclamation within the conclave, this former exile is elected to succeed his benefactor. The world on the brink of nuclear destruction, as a man unaccustomed to ecclesiastical intrigue, and more at home with the lives of everyday people, becomes the latest successor to Peter.

In one scene from the movie, Quinn disguises himself as an ordinary priest, and walks through the poorer streets of Rome. His character never appears happier at any other time. For most of the story, he is still in the prison that is his responsibilities. The climax of the tale is his radical response to the unfolding tragedies in the modern world.

I remembered the story I had seen on the movie screen, the account of a fictional Slavic pope, when I first heard of the election of one who was true to life. The years have not rendered that work of cinematic art any less prophetic. Upon hearing of his death six days ago, I was moved to share with my readers what he meant to me, both as supreme pastor, and as a man. Others have already commented on him most ably, and they appear elsewhere in the blogosphere. On the other hand, I couldn't do any worse than the know-nothings we have all had to endure on the news channels.

All told, I have waited until this day of burial, this time of final commendation, to say goodbye and raise the parting glass.

Karol Wojtyla ("Lolek" or "Charlie" to his friends, as his father's name was also Karol) was born in a little town in Poland, which was newly liberated from division among the aging powers of the ancien régime. When he wasn't serving the priest at the altar or being devoted to his studies, he was out playing soccer with his friends, many of whom were Jewish -- this in a country whose Christian population was more anti-Semitic than most.

Karol lost his mother at eight, his older brother at twelve. As if that were not enough, it was yet another invasion, this one the most hideous of all, that sealed the doom of his innocence. In a nation which used its national identity as a weapon alongside guns, he became an actor in the Polish underground, and assisted in hiding his Jewish friends, some of whom were caught, never to be seen again. Coming of age as a man, he lost his father, and so found himself in the world. Out of the darkness of this loneliness came his ultimate epiphany. This young man, who had lost all whom he ever loved, would give back to the world an unending love, in deciding to become a priest.

With Karol's entry into the seminary came even greater risk to his life. Ordained after the war, young Father Wojtyla was sent to Rome for further study. His eyes were opened to the nations of the world, even as such revelation increased his affection for his own.

His love for the outdoors was a hallmark of his priestly apostolate, and groups of young people accompanied the young parish priest on mountain hikes, camp-outs, and canoe trips. These adventures were highlighted by the singing of folk songs on his guitar, enlightened discussions on religion and philosophy, and clandestine celebration of Mass. It was on such a trip, that Karol learned of his appointment as a bishop. When asked by his friends how he wished to be addressed, he replied: "Call me 'Uncle'."

The new bishop became adept at squaring off against the Russians who invaded his native land even as the Germans left. The years of war had given him a "street smarts" unknown in a prince of the Church. His camaraderie with young people would continue, and his understanding of their lives would deepen. They would marry amongst themselves and invite him to their homes. He shared in their joys, and knew the intimate details of their challenges, both personal and marital.

With the convening of an ecumenical council, Karol was among those bishops in attendance. At the first session, he listened. Upon returning to the second, he spoke out, and was instrumental in that Council's document on the Church in the modern world.

In the meantime, while still a young bishop, he drew upon his experience with pastoral work among married couples, and his studies of theology and the sciences, merging them into a book entitled "Love and Responsibility." First published in his native language in 1960, it would not be translated into English until twenty years later, by which time Karol was even more suddenly swept up by outside events.

A troubled papacy had ended with the death of Paul VI. This tragedy was compounded by the subsequent death of a man who succeeded him for little more than a month. It was yet another man who eventually appeared at the Vatican balcony, on that October day in 1978, who was a shock to the world. Who would have guessed that a man from a country other than Italy, let alone a one from behind the "Iron Curtain," would wear the Shoes of the Fisherman?

In addition to being the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul II was the first pope in modern times who was not a Vatican "player." That is to say, he was not on the usual "fast track" of a Papal diplomat or a curial official. This new pope was a parish priest at heart. Administration and curial intrigue were not his strong suit, but reaching the masses of people was. So he drew the most trusted of advisors around him to do his bidding from within, and went "around the system" to take his message to those whom he truly served. The stage he played as a young man became larger and out in the open; the stakes of his message much greater.

He drew a spotlight on the Sermon on the Mount, warning even married men that carnal lust was uncalled for, even with one's own wife. As Saint Paul admonished the Ephesians nearly two millennia earlier, women were a sacred vessel in the eyes of God, thus in the teaching of the Church. This did not stop at the altar of life that was the marital bed. Such teaching was strange to the ears of many. So began in earnest, the harping of armchair critics, both in the halls of academia, and from the defiant voices in the pulpits.

For this pope, the Church and the world no longer had the luxury of playing games in the halls of the Curia. There were souls at stake, what with man's greatest inhumanity to man fresh in his memory, and in the face of what he once predicted was a battle between the Church and the anti-Church. It was time to take the real message of the Second Vatican Council to those who would hear. It was more than enough for priests to be all they could be as priests, and for the laity to be all they could be as the laity; one could not be truly actualized without the other. For this view of the Church he was both loved and hated.

Meanwhile, his cries for the freedom of his native land reached the ears of those with evil designs. Their attempts to silence him failed. This man, this wounded shepherd, had been brought down in battle before. He picked himself up and continued to lead the everlasting pilgrimage. His resolve so moved the world, from its leaders to the man on the street, and the empire that would have destroyed him was itself destroyed from within.

This man would go on to defy description and easy classification. Was he a "conservative"? Was he a "liberal"? Did it matter? He was a man of great taste in art and music -- not in a way of indulgence, as with those posessing material wealth, but by that way in which beauty lifts man, elevates him, to see the truth in beauty, and the beauty in truth. He knew the back-breaking labor of the commoner, and the suffering of the oppressed. He was at ease meeting with public figures such as President Reagan and folksinger Bob Dylan, just as he was with the garbage collectors of the Vatican, or the homeless of Rome whom he invited to dinner. This parish priest in a white cassock performed baptisms and weddings within the walls of Vatican City, and his violet stole hung outside the confessional door every Good Friday.

His commanding stage presence encouraged the follower, confounded the skeptic, and transfixed the eyes of the world's electronic media. He knew the occasional victory, and would be discouraged by the occasional defeat, if only for a moment. Not all who were charged with carrying his message did so faithfully, but often acted in their own self-interests. This betrayal extended to bishops as well. This weighed heavily on his heart. Still, he would press on. Those who would detract from his message, who would stand in his way, he was not above admonishing -- whether in his hollowed chambers in Rome, or as the eyes of the media were watching.

His pilgrim-followers saw age and lingering illness take their toll on him, and still his shepherd's staff bearing the image of a suffering Christ was seen at the procession's head, and he sojourned onward. In the final years, that image of suffering became truly his own. But in spite of the prodding of media pundits and academic dilettantes, he would refuse to lay down the cross. This was Calvary, and there were more steps yet to climb.

And so he did. When the final curtain fell, on the feast of Mercy that he himself had proclaimed a few years earlier, he made his exit worthy of his thespian craft.

In the view of this writer, the man known to the world as Pope John Paul II was, in the final analysis, a pope for the rest of us. In this midst of intense suffering, he proclaimed news of great joy. In the wake of the greatest darkness in the world, he carried the message that was the Light of the world.

"Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on..." As if to echo the words of the old Negro spiritual, the world he left continues on pilgrimage, as the poet and philosopher who wore the Fisherman's shoes, crosses over to that which is to come.

+ A + M + D + G +

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Interregnum: Day Five

The pope's will -- his "spiritual testament," as it was called -- was opened yesterday, and released to the public today. I haven't read the whole thing myself, but I am told by a realible source, that the identity of the cardinal named "in pectore" (that is, "close to the breast," or in secret) will accompany him to the grave, it seems. Probably someone in China, but who knows? It would have required two witnesses anyway. I'm also informed that he mentions his preference for a successor to be from among the ranks of Italian cardinals. But I haven't read the full document yet. Here's the CWN link on the story:
[H]e considered resignation from the papacy in 2000... The document contains few provisions for John Paul's material possessions. "I do not leave behind me any property that requires disposal," he writes. Instead the Pontiff offers a spiritual testament, in 15 pages of reflection on his life and pontificate.
Fair enough.

(Former President Bill Clinton was quoted on Air Force One enroute to Rome, as describing the late pope's "mixed legacy." And we got that from an expert on the subject.)

Over at, Dom Bettinelli posts two detailed first-hand accounts of life in Vatican City during the formalities, to be linked here and here.

In yet another lesson on the complications wrought by the "papabile" phenomenon, one of the alleged frontrunners, Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, has written a series of essays entitled "Christian Anthropology and Homosexuality." Needless to say, it's rather sympathetic to such proclivities. Now in its third printing, it has only been published in Italian, and most of us missed it. That alignment with Opus Dei sure threw some of us off, huh? Just goes to show you...

Then again, I received a bulletin from Dr Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine...
"In contrast to Tettamanzi, is my choice for Pope, a man I am praying and even predicting will be our next Pope -- a cardinal who has not gotten too much media attention but is a favorite among the orthodox, and very much in the mold of our best popes like Pius XII -- a pastor, a diplomat, and intellectual -- Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, now the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops."
Moynihan goes on to describe Cardinal Re's background and attributes. We could do a lot worse.

It is perfectly well and good to have a desired preference. And yet it is said, that one who enters the conclave as a pope, will leave as a cardinal. Whatever the outcome, the promise of Christ to the first pope, Simon bar-Jona (Peter), the rock upon which the Church stands will prevail, guided by the Holy Spirit.

And those of the Sacred College will enter into their private chamber, where they will listen for "the still, small voice."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Interregnum: Day Four

Now that the 24/7 news channels have moved beyond overkill of the Holy Father's passing (having exhausted their sources of dillatantes to trot out), you can obtain continuous coverage of events at the Vatican with (what else?) streaming video from Vatican TV. (RealPlayer or Windows Media Player required.) Meanwhile, as long as everybody else is getting into the act, Andrew Greeley weighs in on the possible outcome of the next conclave: "Right now a German Brazilian Franciscan looks like a pretty good one-person balanced ticket."

That's about as good as anything else we've heard so far.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

In other news...

Major league baseball began yesterday, in five major cities. The newly-formed Washington Nationals re-introduced the game to the Nation's capital on a sour note, losing to Philadelphia 8-4. Elsewhere, Baltimore shut out the Oakland A's 4-0, Seattle beat Minnesota at 5-1, and Detroit romped the Royals at 11-2. But everyone (including Mark Sullivan of Irish Elk, if he were really honest with himself) knows that the real Opening Day game of the season is where professional baseball began. There, at the magnificent Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati Reds refused to disappoint, beating the New York Mets 7-6 -- thanks to Joe Randa's solo homer at the bottom of the ninth.
Interregnum: The View From Arlington

The various parishes in my home diocese of Arlington, Virginia, have announced their schedules of Masses and Holy Hours during the interregnum. Here's the one that struck my fancy for tonight:
Theology on Tap at Whitlow’s in Arlington with a happy hour from 6:30 -7:30 PM, Father Marcus Pollard to speak on “Pope John Paul II & The New Evangelization: What Does It Mean?” at 7:30 PM, and Q&A at 8 PM.
Hey, I'll finally be able to drink to the guy.

On Friday, the day of burial, the Bishop of Arlington will announce the beginning of the novendiales, or official nine-day period of mourning. A booklet has been prepared by the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy with prayers for each day of such a novena. It is available as a PDF file by clicking here.

MWBH has decided to present an abbreviated version of this commemoration over the entire nine-day period. Each entry will consist of the reading of the day, followed by the accompanying oration. Stay tuned on that one...

Meanwhile, the pundits continue... well, punditing. The cable news channels have given some attention to Amy Welborn and Open Book, with its numerous links to other commentaries, and ongoing comments-box marathons. One of the best would have to be any involving George Weigel, author of the papal biography Witness to Hope, and who is also working on a book of his passing and legacy, as yet untitled, scheduled for release later this year.
Interregnum: Day Three

My friend Peter Vere of Catholic Light, appeared on MSNBC the other day, as shown in this video stream, courtesy of The Political Teen.

And now that you bring it up, Pete, should John Paul be known as "the Great"? The title is not codified, but is rendered by popular acclamation. Even then, it has only been conferred on two other popes -- Gregory, who in the sixth century reformed the plainchant that bears his name and solidified the primacy of Rome against Constantinople; and Leo, who in the eighth or ninth century (no time to look it up today) intervened to save Rome from the barbarian hoardes.

I suppose bringing down a latter-day Russian Empire without firing a shot is in the same league. Well, that settles it for me; "John Paul the Great" it is.

I must beg to differ, though, with my friend Mark Shea of Catholic and Enjoying It, who refers to the late pontiff as "Pope St John Paul the Great" (in an otherwise excellent analysis). Sorry, Mark, but even HE would consider canonization to be presumptuous at this point. Better to list him as "Servant of God." While in the West, this latter title is reserved for those whose causes for sainthood are about to be introduced, the Eastern churches, confer this title on any deceased member of the faithful.

Better also to pray FOR the repose of his soul, rather than TO him for his intercession.

More analysis to follow...

Monday, April 04, 2005

Home is the fisherman, home from the sea...

There have been so many tributes to the late John Paul II in the blogosphere, and no small share of those who would attack him before he is in the grave. To the latter, SHAME on the lot of you! Meanwhile, an excellent survey of the former can be found in entries of the last two days by Dom Bettinelli of, also Managing Editor of Catholic World Report.

I first heard the announcement itself on CNN, about mid-afternoon Saturday. It did not surprise me to see them trot out the usual would-be "experts," with all the half-baked theories on the why or wherefore on renegotiating unchangable Catholic teaching on, say, women in the priesthood or contraception, by the next pontificate. So after seeing the likes of rabidly pro-abortion Jesuits like Robert Drinan (who only left Congress after the new Code of Canon Law directed him to) and their usual drivel, I turned to MSNBC and Fox News Channel for more balanced reporting.

But what did surprise me is that, except for hanging black drapes and proceeding with plans for Saturday evening Masses, the parishes in DC's Virginia suburbs appeared to go on with business as usual. Didn't they know that the Holy Father had just died? Didn't they see the news footage of pilgrims flocking to St Peter's in Rome, to his former residence in Cracow, to St Patrick's in New York City? Even the Basilica of the National Shrine was planning to roll up the sidewalks as usual. Could they not, for once in a blue moon, leave the doors wide open, with candles lit by the man's portrait, inviting all who would enter and pay their respects, even into the next morning?

After agreeing that we were in no mood to go out dancing, Sal and I went across town, to Our Lady Queen of Poland in Silver Spring, MD, to join his country men in praying the Rosary. Years of praying in Church Slavonic with the Byzantine Liturgy prepared me to follow the "Paters" and "Aves" in Polish, as the two of us responded to ourselves in English. As a young woman in her native Philippines, Sal marched with her kababayan through the streets of Manila -- armed only with a Rosary in one hand and a cassava cake in the other -- to bring down a dictatorship. Surely they followed the example of the Holy Father, who brought down the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, with no greater weapon than the Rosary, and the arousal of the will of humanity.

I've been reading a book this past week, Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II. I have long been a student of his life. Whatever tribute of my own could not compare to those who have already written. But I hope to offer my own feelings of the man who was Karol Wojtyla, whom many knew affecitonately as "Lolek" (roughly translated as "Charlie") -- the man who, upon learning of his appointment as a bishop, told those with him to "call me 'Uncle'."

I will conclude this entry with a video tribute prepared by Mr Bettinelli, entitled Abba Pater.

Friday, April 01, 2005

"In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum."
No Foolin'

Now that the USA is no longer a nation under the rule of law, but rather judicial fiat (see recent entry of Mar 22, and try to prove otherwise, if you dare!), we at MWBH aren't exactly in the mood for playing jokes.

Then again, it might be a good day to draw attention to this entry from the Old Farmer's Almanac, in reference to "the Feast of Fools"...
The term "All Fools," was probably meant as a deliberate stab at All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2) Day. Although the origin of playing practical jokes and pranks on this day is hazy, many folklorists believe it may go back to 16th-century France. At that time, New Year's Day was March 25, with a full week of partying and exchanging gifts until April 1. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar moved New Year's Day to January 1. Those who forgot or refused to honor the new calendar were the butts of jokes and ridicule. Weather folklore states, "If it thunders on All Fools Day, it brings good crops of corn and hay."
It may also be fitting that the Paschal season be highlighted this weekend, by what has been declared "Divine Mercy Sunday." We could probably use all we could get at the moment. Stay tuned...