Papal answer book an enlightening read

October 26, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

This small, elegantly printed volume -- it has the look of a prayer book -- consists chiefly of Pope John Paul's answers to 35 questions submitted by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist, for an interview that never took place.

Because some questions are what any citizen of the world -- Roman Catholic or not -- might want to ask the pope, they contribute as much to the appeal of the book as the answers.

At the outset, the questioner quotes Pascal: The pope is "either the mysterious living proof of the Creator of the universe or the central protagonist of a millennial illusion."

John Paul is asked if he "ever once hesitated" in his belief in the demanding creed repeated at each Catholic Mass. "Your question is infused with both a lively faith and a certain anxiety," the pope replies. He quotes Jesus, "Be not afraid!"

Then, in what becomes a discursive commentary typical of the book's style, he touches on many subjects and many passages of scripture before reaching the heart of his answer.

The pope refers to an objection to Catholicism voiced by many Protestants, the tradition of calling priests "Father." He concedes: "Christ himself declared, 'Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.' " But such differences between Catholics and Protestants are "of little importance," the pope says. He dismisses his own titles of "Supreme Pontiff," "Your Holiness" and "Holy Father."

"What is important originates in the Death and Resurrection of Christ," John Paul writes. "What is important is that which comes from the power of the Holy Spirit."

The book has been translated into 21 languages. The range of topics it covers includes the civilizing role that Christianity shares with other religions around the world.

It is too early to say whether an anonymous "industry observer" quoted by Publisher's Weekly had it right: that "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" will be "the biggest unread best-selling book in history."

What is clear is that a pope sometimes accused of abandoning the ecumenical spirit of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s has drawn on the council's deliberations with enthusiasm to "trace a common path," in his words, with religious faiths as diverse as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

"The indigenous peoples of Australia boast a history tens of thousands of years old. . . . Their ethnic and religious tradition is older than that of Abraham and Moses," he writes. "Instead of marveling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them." Affirming that "Christ came into the world for all of these peoples" and "redeemed them all," the hTC pope's book offers the theory that many people who do not know or accept Jesus nevertheless "have an implicit faith in Him."

After references to "all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship," the pope writes, "It seems that those who practice them are particularly close to Christianity, and among them, the church's missionaries also find it easier to speak a common language."

John Paul suggests an interesting parallel between ancestor worship and the Catholic practice of canonizing saints. "Is there, perhaps, in this veneration of ancestors," he asks, "a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of Saints, in which all believers -- whether living or dead -- form a single community, a single body?"

Stressing the importance to him of "personal contacts" with Christians of other denominations, the pope writes: "The very fact that we are able to come together and pray is very significant. Some years ago this was absolutely unthinkable."

John Paul provides no new answers for critics of his uncompromising theological stands, such as his refusal to allow even the consideration of women's ordination. "I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for women," he writes.

The 74-year-old pontiff has been a prolific writer. He is the author of a collection of poetry, plays -- including one that was turned into a movie -- and a treatise on moral philosophy.

"Crossing the Threshold of Hope" is described as the first work written for a general audience. The praise from John Paul's apologists -- who are numerous -- is understandable. Whether the public at large will find the book compelling is doubtful.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Crossing the Threshold of Hope"

Author: John Paul II

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 244 pages, $20

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