A Quality of Soul

ROME (Saturday April 26) – Among the many public debates swirling around the unprecedented events of this weekend – two popes becoming saints in the presence of two living popes – it’s easy to overlook some simple realities. Ultimately, holiness is a private matter, something that transpires in a human soul. It may manifest itself in great heroism as in the case if John Paul II or great humanity as in the case of John XXIII. But it’s first of all a matter of what’s inside, not outside, a quality of soul.

Everywhere in Rome this evening churches stayed open all night for Masses and prayer vigils. There’s a festive feeling to the city, especially among the many young people. But there’s also a feeling of recollection, as is only fitting in such days. This integration of the two poles of things – the outside and the inside – happens only in our Church.

Italian television has actually been rather good. Unlike most other news organizations, they have been talking with ordinary people in the – still modest – crowds. Surprisingly, they’ve discovered some miracle stories and there are probably many others unnoticed by the otherwise lockstep media.

I heard one young man, for example, talk about a fall he had while mountain hiking. As he was slipping into unconsciousness and as his whole life was passing before his eyes – as others in such straits have reported – he heard that Polish baritone voice tell him: “Be not afraid.” And he knew then, he’d be okay, which he was. He was rescued shortly thereafter.

It’s a shame that other media outlets, including Catholic ones, are not seeking out such stories, because they represent a part of the modern cult of JPII that deserves to be recorded. Probably not many of these events would rise to the level of solid “miracles” as defined by the canonization process. But that process is not the whole story of the intercessions of a saint. More stories, even if ultimately uncorroborated, ought to be in the narrative.    

A group in Rome asked me to sum up, very briefly, what the continuing legacy of John Paul II is on our day. (John XXIII, though important, doesn’t seem to have the same immediate relevance this weekend.) I gave them roughly three main points this evening.

We have heard a great deal in this last day about JPII’s heroic struggles against Communism and his contributions to the ultimate freeing of the world, including his beloved homeland, Poland, from that atheistic nightmare. We might also recall how he began, from the moment he became pope, to restore stability and better order within the Church. He left a series of great encyclicals on matters both religious and worldly – bioethics, Catholic social teaching, Faith & Reason – often wrongly set against one another in the modern world. And it will take decades to absorb this rich political, moral, literary, theological, and philosophical legacy.

But it’s worthwhile trying to approach his legacy from a somewhat different angle than via these typical categories. I was struck in one of the videos currently circulating at how much JPII thought his experience as a clandestine seminarian formed him. Clearly, when you are training to carry out a mission in the world in circumstances then marked by Communism, it forces a certain interior formation on you. And that interior formation was the foundation of the extraordinary exterior life that he led both before and after becoming pope.

We all remember that public voice, which as an actor in his early life, he learned to use to such great effect. Like Ronald Regan, JPII was a great communicator. But they were both great communicators because they had personal gifts, but also because they had something to communicate – something vital.

Pope Francis often says that it’s a good idea to make only three points in a presentation – the Jesuits apparently believe that if you put remarks in this Trinitarian form, which is a good rule to observe if you are a Christian – that people will take something away from what you say. So let’s focus on three things:

First, JPII’s mind. As I mentioned yesterday, Charles Peguy, one of the great French Catholics of the twentieth century, once said: “Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.” He didn’t say this because he thought it a good thing, but because freedom by its nature has always to workat organizing itself. It’s pretty easy to organize a mafia or a dictatorship, if you have no scruples; harder to invite people to live up to their own humanity and to take organized action for what is true and good. 

To do that, you have to know people and know what truth and freedom really are. One of my favorite stories about JPII is that he carried a scholarly quarterly of Marxist philosophy into the conclave that elected him pope because he thought he’d be back shortly in Poland and would have to continue his struggle against false ideas.

But he didn’t think, like some academics, that his job was done when he understood in his own mind how and why Communism was false. That knowledge brought with it responsibility: The responsibility to know what needed fixing and then to do something about it.

Which brings me to my second point: his deeds. If freedom needs to be organized, it only happens via organizations, which he did not neglect as mere practicalities. After Vatican II, most Catholic dioceses fell into chaos, but not Krakow. That was because Archbishop Karol Wojtyla organized consultations with his people. He taught them what the Council wanted them to learn. Groups met in the diocese and in parishes that worked out a beautiful, modern Catholicism that was still faithful to the ancient things.

I find that many people neglect this crucial truth. I’ve worked in think tanks in Washington for thirty years precisely because, as our universities started to go bad, we needed different organizations to produce different and better ideas. Almost miraculously, especially for those of us who walk the border between religion and public life, we few voices have had some effect in the world, far beyond what our numbers, financial resources, and social possibilities might lead you to expect. But truth and freedom, as JPII knew, are powerful.

Finally, it’s crucial to appreciate the heart of JPII, that great heart that finally stopped beating not far from where we were tonight after heroic witness about to how to live – and to die. It’s a bit of a cliché in our time to say never give up, never quit the battle. But clichés are mostly true.

I wrote a history of the Swiss Guard for their 500th anniversary in 2006. For that project, I interviewed many of the members. One young man told me something I’ll never forget: he was on duty in St. Peter’s Square as the pope was slipping away. There were 80,000 in the square – absolutely silent: “I’ve worked through many events with large crowds in my time in the Swiss Guards. I never experienced anything like that.”

It may just be me. Rome has a certain hypnotic quality over Romantic temperaments, especially if you’re jet lagged and dealing with events of crucial importance to worldwide Catholicism. But I’m already sensing both the exuberance of the public events tomorrow and the recollection, the contemplative quality so characteristic of the great men to be canonized shortly.

It’s late in Rome as I close, but I hope to be back here right after the television commentary I’m doing in the morning to report for you on what those special hours of the four popes were like Sunday morning.