A faith steeled by tyranny

October 08, 1995|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WADOWICE, Poland -- By age 21, the bright, devout young Pole named Karol Wojtyla had little to show for his life but a series of tragic losses.

He was a son who had lost his family, a patriot who had lost his country, a scholar who had lost his university, and an actor who had lost his audience. Death took his family, one by one. The Nazis took the rest. It was 1941, and suddenly he was virtually alone in a world gone mad with genocide and destruction.

But there was still the Roman Catholic Church. And in the following months, fate, history and circumstance would steer him onto the narrow path to the priesthood. It was a route that soon began to reverse his losses, equipping him first with the church's version of a family and then with a university education.

In the end, the church also gave him back his audience, a far bigger one than he'd ever imagined as an actor. In 1978 Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 4 centuries, spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.

Now, nearly 17 years after his installation, Pope John Paul is due to arrive today in Baltimore as part of the latest tour by history's most well-traveled papacy. But in all the years, all the miles and all the roaring crowds, the world hasn't yet pinned a label on this pope from Poland.

To his opponents on the issues of birth control and the ordination of female priests, he's the iron dictator of doctrinal conservatism, his mind locked rigidly in the past. Yet, his writings celebrated the joy of human sexuality well before the liberating upheavals of the late 1960s.

To Eastern Europe's Communists, still smarting from the way he helped sweep them from power in 1989, he is a tool of the West. Yet he also rails against the capitalist excesses of bankers and billionaires, siding time and again with the poor.

To Jews, he's the Catholic who finally had the courage to redress old wounds, a seeker of interfaith and interdenominational unity. Yet, critics within his own church see him as divisive and unsparing.

"It is absolutely a mistake to use the labels of conservative or progressive for this pope," says Marco Politi, who covers the Vatican for the Rome daily La Repubblica and is writing a biography on Pope John Paul. "The label doesn't tell you enough."

How, then, to best understand Karol Wojtyla? Those who have known him and watched him the longest say one must first come here, to the land where he grew up, lost his family and embraced the church. In Poland one may find the taproot for each major theme of his papacy, whether it is his traditional views on the role of women, his stress on the importance of the family, his devotion to the Virgin Mary, his concern for the downtrodden, his insights on the plight of the Jews, or his unquenchable yearning for an audience.

Spreading the Gospel

Catholicism in Poland is a realm where the rules are rarely open to discussion, much less change; a place where it follows quite naturally that because Jesus had no female disciples, women therefore may not be priests.

It is also the seat of the country's deepest feelings of nationalism. As Poles have endured more than a thousand years of upheaval and suffering, often at the hands of foreign empires, the church has been the country's unbreakable spine.

"Faith is a gift instilled by God," says the Rev. Kazimierz Suder, parish priest in the pope's hometown of Wadowice. "But faith here in Poland has never gone for long without being tested by the Turks, the Tatars, the Swedes, the Austrians, the Nazis, the ++ Communists or whoever else. And in the early part of this century, when there was not even a Polish state because of the partitioning [among three empires], the only stable factor was people's relationship with their faith and with their Catholic parish."

Father Suder sits in a darkened room of his church on a rainy fall morning. Just out his window and across a narrow street is the building where the future pope was born and lived his first 18 years.

Wadowice is near the old fault lines of the last partition, and Pope John Paul's father, Karol Wojtyla Sr., was an Austrian army conscript before joining the army of the new Poland after World War I. By the time Karol Jr. was born two years later, his father was a lieutenant and the army was enjoying its first great triumphs in fending off an invasion of the new Soviet Union.

Young Karol grew up steeped in the intertwined traditions of nationalism and Catholicism, drawing strength from both when his mother died before his ninth birthday. From then on, a dominant figure in his life was the Virgin Mary, whose image is displayed in so many Polish homes and roadside shrines. Spiritually, she became something of a surrogate mother for the young Karol Wojtyla, papal scholars say.

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