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Passing of a great man

Posted by Helen Monday, April 04, 2005

There are worse ways of going than sinking gently during Easter week, surrounded by caring people and knowing that you have achieved much and that the world outside will be mourning your passing.

The Polish Pope is not, as it happens, the last of the twentieth century giants to go. People have mentioned Queen Elizabeth II, who is a very great lady and who has served her country and her people well. But her virtues have been largely negative.

Just listen to what the same people say: she has never put a wrong; not a shadow of a scandal; never upset anyone. All very admirable but all rather negative. It is her constitutional position and, more to the point, her training and the fact that she succeeded to the throne at such an early age, that have created her particular public personality.

In the fight against the second monstrous regime of the twentieth century we can name at least three people at the top and one of them is a British Prime Minister. Does nobody remember the role Margaret Thatcher played? The third is, of course, President Ronald Reagan.

Interestingly, all three, President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Prime Minister Thatcher, survived assassination attempts, in itself a sign of their importance. Who would bother to go after any Commission President or, for that matter, Prime Minister Blair, whose personal security far surpasses anybody else’s in this country or, possibly, the entire western world?

There is an apocryphal story about Stalin. Soon after the Second World War someone wondered out loud what the Pope will say about something or other, to which old Joseph Vissarionovich is said to have replied: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

This crude and entirely characteristic comment (even if it was never made) has been quoted ad nauseam. But the truth is that the Polish Pope turned out to have had far more divisions than Stalin’s successors.

Many of us remember the surge of hope that went through people who lived under Communist dictatorships and those, who, in the West, had been trying unsuccessfully to tell the leaders about that evil system on that October day in 1978 when the white smoke went up and the announcement was made: the new Pope was to be Cardinal Karol Woytyła. Those hopes were not disappointed.

Cardinal Woytyła had, in his youth, opposed Nazism, was friends with Jewish writers and thinkers, had stood firm against Communism while many of his colleagues were making various deals and was also, importantly, a writer and a poet himself and a man who had been so enamoured of the theatre that he had even contemplated becoming an actor. Despite all the later controversies, he was a man for all seasons and a man for our season.

There is no question about the role Pope John Paul II played in the destruction of Communism and revival of true Europeanism in many countries of the former Soviet Empire.

He was also the man who went to the Holy Land, who spoke to Jews as a friend (not that common among Popes in the history of the Catholic Church), reached out to Muslims, worked tirelessly and, one must add, apparently fruitlessly, towards religious reconciliation.

It is interesting to read the various tributes paid to Pope John Paul II. President Bush extolled his commitment to freedom while SecGen Annan talked of his love of peace, forgetting as is his wont, about freedom.

The Queen, as behoves the Head of the Anglican Church, spoke of his work in trying to bring the two denominations together. Prime Minister Blair and President Chirac waffled on about social justice, a meaningless concept.

Michael Howard, who seems to have made his statement before Blair did, spoke of the Pope’s support for freedom and opposition to totalitarianism. Unexpectedly for a practising Jew, he also spoke of him as a man who upheld Christian values, something that Blair and Chirac ought to have laid more emphasis on.

As in 1978, so in 2005: reactions to the Polish Pope tell you all you need to know about the speakers.

John Paul II’s achievement went further even than strong support for people who were fighting totalitarianism. When he became the Pontiff it was fashionable to say, as it is now in Europe newly enamoured with the ideology of empty secularism, that churches no longer mattered, spiritual and religious values were a thing of the past, the papacy was a historical relic.

Is that so, one wonders. The Polish Pope filled his position with real and urgent meaning; he reaffirmed the importance of spiritual values. In his wake a British Prime Minister and an American President announced firmly that there were certain inalienable truths they believed in. Instead of making unnecessary deals with the enemy, they fought the battles and won.

In death the Pope has served people one more time, by showing up the empty futility of the various politicians and, above all, the meaningless posturing of the eurocrats with their “European values”, which may be a source of great feelings of superiority to them, but are of little interest to the rest of the world (Europe including) whose eyes are once again fixed on the Vatican and will go on being fixed on a certain chimney, waiting for the smoke.

I hold no brief for those who say that Christianity should have been mentioned in the European constitution. It is probably no secret that I do not think there should have been a constitution at all. But, even if for some bizarre reason I thought that there was nothing wrong with that ghastly document, I would still maintain that religion should play no part in it. (But then, neither should detailed rules for the economy or the environment be part of a constitutional document.)

On the other hand, “European values” without religious and historical underpinning are meaningless and sway with the wind of fashion. This truth Pope John Paul II proved most triumphantly with his life and work.

Think of the supercilious “European” and, I am sorry to say, British reaction to the Terri Schiavo case, as convoluted a problem as anyone could imagine. I have no desire to go into the rights and wrongs of it and hereby warn our readers that I shall ignore all comments on the case itself.

However, I was rather shocked to see respectable commentators in the media sneer at those Americans who maintained that Ms Schiavo’s feeding tubes should not be removed and she should not be allowed to die of hunger and thirst.

Instead of arguing the various medical and philosophical pros and cons, newspapers such as the Financial Times, a great upholder of “European values”, proclaimed that only in the United States, land of the bug-eyed religious fanatics, could people maintain that human life is sacred whether its owner is severely disabled or not.

So, um, let me get this straight: European values mean opposition to capital punishment even if the person in question is a mass murderer or has tortured and murdered children but they also mean a clear understanding that severely disabled people can be put to death on the medical profession’s say-so?

That is the logic of all those pronouncements and that is the sort of thinking that many people find difficult and why Pope John Paul II, with all the controversial statements, has remained a man to be admired.

So what of the future? Nobody can even pretend that the Pope’s death and the choice of his successor are matters of little import outside the Vatican. Indeed, even John Paul II’s admirers have been somewhat nauseated by the amount of mawkish and sentimental coverage his life and death have received in the British media. If it were not in bad taste, I could call this the Dianafication of the Pontiff.

Still, we can take comfort from the fact that Blair’s dreary election spin will have to be muted for a while. (Did I, incidentally, really see Gordon Brown announcing that education was going to be at the heart of the putative next Labour government’s policies? Do I hear the words day and groundhog?)

We can take further comfort that the equally dreary eurocrat spin on the constitution will be semi-muted for a while.

But what of the next Pontiff? Clearly, we can make no predictions. There is talk, as my colleague has pointed out, of an African Pope. That would make sense. Just as in 1978 the battle lines were in eastern Europe where the church was both persecuted and strengthened by the persecution, so it is Africa where much of this happens now. And the battle lines go beyond the church itself.

The Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is being mentioned as a possible candidate, is an expert on Islam. The Polish Pope knew all about Communism. There is an inescapable logic here.

Furthermore, many of the problems John Paul’s successor will inherit do have to do with the developing countries and, particularly, with Africa. An African Pope will be able to turn his attention to them with a greater confidence and will be able to contribute more than any number of Commissions for Africa and reports thereof.

There are other arguments and the Vatican will have its own logic. One point that has been mentioned is that while Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are strong in many parts of the world, it is Europe with all its “European values” where people feel rudderless. That would indicate the need for a European Pope, though what he might be able to do is hard to see at this stage.

In the meantime, we can speak, for once without a hint of sarcasm, of the passing of a great and good man. May his successor continue and enhance his work.