The curse of black gold

September 18 2003 | by

MY FIRST IMPRESSION of Pope John Paul II, captured in a photograph the world remembers, was the strength in his face when he first appeared on the balcony as the man chosen as Pope. “Carlum,” rang out the name, after the joyful Latin “Habemus Papam”. A moment of thrilling mystery. Which of the front-runners was called Charles, or Carlo, or Carl? But he was Karol, Karol Wojtyla, a man called from Poland, then thought of as the East, to rule in East and West.


A pope for all seasons          


There is no duty in a Silver Jubilee tribute to list all a man’s works. We may pray with confidence that our Pope will indeed survive until 16 October, the 25th anniversary of his election. But the recounting of some basic facts must be in order. He has made close to 100 pastoral visits outside Italy and, even as I write these words, another visit, to Slovakia, has been announced. He has made 142 visits within Italy, and, if anyone thinks he has therefore neglected his own diocese, let them reflect that he has visited over 300 of the 334 parishes in Rome.

He has canonized 469 saints, beatified 1,310 people, and created 201 cardinals in eight consistories. He has written 14 encyclicals, 13 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 42 apostolic letters. And, during his papacy, he has written three books: Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), Gift and Mystery: On the 50th Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination (1996), and Roman Tryptych - Meditations (2003). In this last book the octogenarian meditates on his own death - but with never a thought of setting down the burden of his office until the Lord calls him from it.

Against this stupendous catalogue, I am nevertheless certain that the great focus of his ministry has been carrying the Church to and through its Millennial hour and it is to this that I have chosen to pay particular attention here, drawing from the prayers he offered in the years leading up to it and in what was its culmination for me, his great sermon in Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai on 26 February 2000.


Freedom to love!


In 1997, the first year of preparation, his prayer was addressed to the Lord Jesus. He asked that the Millennium year should be one of grace and mercy and that with pure and simple hearts we should contemplate the Incarnation when “you, the Son of God, in the womb of the Virgin, sanctuary of the Spirit, became our brother”.

His prayer for 1998 was addressed to the Holy Spirit, “Come, Spirit of Love and Peace”, and took almost the form of a poem: “…guide the Church to cross with courage the threshold of the new Millennium… direct science and technology to the service of life, justice and peace”. And he spoke mysteriously of “the Virgin Mary, the woman of attentive silence”.

In 1999, he addressed his prayer to the Father. “Blessed are You, Father, who, in Your infinite love, gave us Your only-begotten Son”. He prayed that the Millennium might see swords beaten into ploughshares and the clash of arms giving way to peace; and that dialogue between the followers of the great religions might prosper.

Then, in February of the Millennium year, we hear his voice at the foot of Mount Sinai, truly the end of the earth and the beginning of heaven. “Today with great joy and deep emotion, the Bishop of Rome is a pilgrim to Mount Sinai, drawn by this holy mountain which rises like a soaring monument to what God revealed here. Here he revealed his name! Here he gave his Law… The encounter of God and Moses on this Mountain enshrines at the heart of our religion the mystery of liberating obedience”. He explained that God’s commandments give us the freedom to love, to choose what is good in every situation, even when to do so is a burden. These words make me reflect that we are not here on earth to preserve ourselves but to use ourselves up, to consume ourselves in the service of others, and thus of God.

In April this year, Pope John Paul’s days on the throne of Peter surpassed those of Pius VI, 1755-99. Should he survive until March next year his reign will have exceeded that of Leo XIII, elected a hundred years before himself and who died in 1903. Then only the reigns of Pius IX, who died in 1878 after 31 years, and Saint Peter, dates uncertain but traditionally more than 31 years long, will exceed his.


A tragic day


I want to share with you some personal memories of the Holy Father. On the terrible day in 1981 when he was shot in St Peter’s Square and all the odds seemed stacked against his survival, I was second in command at The Universe, one of the British Catholic weeklies. The managing director was away, so was the editor, so was the circulation manager. Mercifully I had experience across all functions. I worked with the journalists to cover the story and do telephone interviews, I had to write the leader, decide the extra circulation, and do the paper’s interview for the BBC. I was exhausted and I remember getting a taxi across town for the last train home. It turned out that the late Brian Redhead of the BBC, a good friend of mine for many years, had taken the very same taxi to Heathrow earlier that evening in his own race to Rome from where he addressed us dramatically the following morning.

This assassination attempt was one of two shadows that fell across the planned visit of the Holy Father to Britain set for the following year. The second was the sudden war between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands. As fears that the Holy Father’s appalling bullet injuries might cancel the visit subsided, so the gathering war clouds darkened the prospect. The Pope “hoped against hope” that he could come. But all cleared away in the final fortnight and on a brilliant June morning, in the much humbler role of a reporter, I stood in a 3,000-strong crowd at Gatwick Airport and saw the Holy Father’s plane circle, land and taxi up to us. “Praised be Jesus Christ!” were his opening words. Descending the steps he knelt to kiss the tarmac, and, on rising, was welcomed by the then bishop of Arundel and Brighton, in which Gatwick lies. He was Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, now Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.


Giant among men and popes


Later during that visit my wife and I had the joy of joining the Polish community in exile here in Britain when they received their own dear Pope at Crystal Palace. On that brilliant Pentecost morning all the long sufferings of this people, in the war and under Communism, were briefly balmed and salved. No one there would have dared to dream, in the aching emptiness as his helicopter bore him away, that in part under the impact of this man’s labour and faith, Communism would collapse before the decade had passed.

In 1987, when in charge at The Universe, I had the privilege of meeting Pope John Paul in his study after attending his 7am Mass. It was an intense experience and, when Rowanne Pasco, the editor, and I had shown him copies of our paper, he looked us steadily in the eye, gave us each a rosary, and imparted a special blessing on our work. I was presented to him again that year, in connection with my work for Aid to the Church in Need, and this time my wife Maureen was with me. Maureen does not like the higher styles of address in the Church and calls all canons, monsignori, bishops and cardinals simply ‘Father’, holding no title higher in honour. But when she met Pope John Paul her only memory was not of what she called him but of the impact on her heart when he briefly held her hand and eyes. She was at once in tears.

Typically this giant among men and among popes plans to mask his silver Jubilee celebrations, set for Sunday 19 October, by combining the occasion with the beatification of Mother Teresa that same day. Beside 2000 years of Jesus Christ, the Living Bread still among us, and the life of a simple Albanian nun, his own honourable length of years counts in his great heart for very little.

Updated on October 06 2016