Book Review: Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

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Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

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Jonathan Kwitney's Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II,is a sympathetic treatment of the life of the former Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. This 678-page biography traces the present Pope's life from his birth in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. His story is told within the context of Cold War Poland and its struggle against Communism. John Paul is presented as a key player in the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia.

This book offers a review of the major issues that have concerned the Roman Catholic Church in the past 50 years. The issues of Communism, birth control, ecumenicalism, and attacks upon the centuries old authority of the papacy and church tradition, are all treated in this book. You are introduced to the themes of Polish cultural history, basic Catholic theology, and Vatican politics. The book seems well researched. The author delves into many issues covered by previous books on the papacy and refutes previously held ideas.

A strong case is made that this Slavic Pope was largely responsible for the peaceful overthrow of Communism. His support for Poland's Solidarity movement along with his visits to the country helped galvanize resistance to the Moscow backed regime. Indeed, he did employ nonviolent methods as effectively as anyone, but the influence of his role will be analyzed and debated for some time.

Fascinating Personal Insights

Kwitney offers fascinating insights into the personal life of Karol Wojtyla. By age 21 he was orphaned and alone. After working in a factory and dabbling in the theater he decided to enter the priesthood. This decision is presented as a natural step for an introspective and private individual who was not known for forming any romantic relationships with the opposite sex. His personal habits reveal a man of simple tastes who has collected few material goods through his life. Repeatedly he would give away the gifts of clothing from friends and continue wearing the used items to which he was accustomed. He has never had an interest in money or the things money can buy. A bishop once told a supporter not to hand then Cardinal Wojtyla any money, which would have gone to some other cause, because he would not know what to do with it.

His ability to do two things at once is legendary. While listening to lectures or after dinner conversation his habit would be to read a book or sort through a pile of correspondence. Afterwards, he would always be able to sum up what was said around him.

Pope John Paul II has a reputation of being a mystic. This is well known and documented. Following the attempt on his life in 1981 he attributed his safety to the Virgin Mary, whom he has always venerated with special regard. Interestingly, the date of this shooting came on the anniversary, May 13, of the 1917 appearance of the virgin to three shepherd girls in Fatima. An early influence in this area came from a monk named Padre Pio whose stories claimed personal contact with God and the devil. He claimed supernatural powers that included exorcism and healing of disease.

At the height of his fame a multi-million dollar tourist industry sprung up around his home monastery, San Giovanni Rotondo, near the city of Foggia. Pio claimed to literally wrestle in the night with demons that would strip him naked and beat him. In 1947, as a seminary student in Rome, Karol Wojtyla began to visit this strange monk. He became a devoted adherent and formed with the monk the "strangest relationship of his life." Wojtyla even asked him to pray for a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer. The friend was "instantaneously cured" according to the future Pope. To a fellow Cardinal he confided that "Padre Pio told him he would gain the highest post in the Church" (page 101). Wojtyla thought it meant he might one day be a cardinal.

Impressions of America

In 1969 he made his first visit to North America, visiting most major cities. His opinion was that "the U.S. was greedy and overly commercial, and had come loose from its spiritual moorings" (page 227). John Paul II has always viewed Western, and particularly American culture, as greedy, self-centered, and inherently inhumane. His early trips to the U.S. left him amazed at the wealth of America compared to what he was accustomed to in Poland. His reaction was conditioned by his formative years under both Nazi and Communist rule. His native Poland has suffered great depravation during his lifetime. He has called American society a "culture of death" and thereby alienated himself from a potential audience. It appears he has not been able to fully grasp the nature of American democracy.

In 1976 as Cardinal of Krakow, Wojtyla led Pope Paul VI and other Vatican officials on a spiritual retreat. He gave 22 lectures grouped under the heading "Sign of Contradiction." Among the themes he developed were the birth of the new man, and talks about science as a common ground for all religions. He introduced an idea he would pursue into his papacy. He said the Bible was "the key to understanding today's world.... I think it is true that today one cannot understand either Sartre or Marx without having first read and pondered very deeply the first three chapters of Genesis." He dwelt on the temptations of Adam and Eve by the serpent, which for him became a real devil. These are interesting concepts for a future Pope to be teaching a sitting Pope.

His Vision for the Future

Particular attention is paid to the Pope's efforts at ecumenism. In December 1983 he became the first Pope to preach in a Lutheran church. In his sermon he took a giant step toward rehabilitating the monk who broke with Rome. He said, "He could see from afar the dawn of the restoration of our unity." John Paul hopes to live to the year 2000, during which he plans to visit the places on the road taken by the people of God of the Old Covenant, starting from the places associated with Abraham and Moses, through Egypt as far as Damascus, the city that witnessed the conversion of Paul. He dreams of convening a meeting of leaders of the major world faiths on Mount Sinai "to work together to give our world a more metaphysical dimension" (page 673).

This Pope has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote the unity of all faiths. While not all his overtures have been reciprocated, he has persisted in establishing dialogue and holding meetings with other faiths in an attempt to heal the breaches. In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint(That All May Be One), he called ecumenism "a dialogue of conversion, and went on to hint at a desire to "find a way of exercising the primacy [referring to the papal office] while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, [but] nonetheless [be] open to a new situation" (page 673).

The book concludes with a bleak perspective of the church and the world. Statistics on abortion and morality and a declining aging leadership within Catholicism have the pope "praying that the year 2000 will bring a second miracle." WNP