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Byline by M.J.Akbar : The Vicar
Death sells, otherwise it would not be on television. Death has always been news, obviously. But the death of Diana, queen-apparent of Britain, turned death into a brand-builder.
Diana was dead when television picked up the reaction, but her funeral became the template. Greatness is now measured by television footage. There is nothing wrong or unethical about this, for television is the mass medium of the moment, in a way print could never be, since television news has all the elements that the masses want: it is audio-visual rather than intellectual, it is specific rather than elaborate, and it is free. The length of the camera’s vigil is proof that John Paul II is on the short list of great Popes. Add the fact that he is the only Pope to feature in a comic book, and you need no more evidence that he has the popular vote.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who took the name of John Paul upon his election as Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy and Sovereign of Vatican City, became convinced of his destiny not when he became Pope on 16 October 1978 after the sudden death of John Paul I, but after an assassin’s bullet failed to kill him on 13 May 1981.
The strange story goes back to another 13 May, during the First World War. On 13 May 1917, the Virgin Mary, in a size no larger than a doll, appeared in a vision to three peasant children in a Portuguese village called Fatimah, and told them three things about the future. The first was that the Great War would end soon. The second was that a second world war would begin if Christians did not pray to her. The third revelation was considered so volatile that it was kept secret in the archives of the Vatican. There would be an attempt on the life of a Pope by an atheist, after which the atheist empire would be brought down.
It was not as if a Pope had never been assassinated. By far the larger number of Popes has been more political than ecclesiastical, playing a vigorous role in the politics of Europe and sometimes paying the price of politics. The first Pope to be assassinated was John VIII — the slightly inadequate poison took so long to take effect that the assassins decided to speed things up by clubbing him. Other inventive methods to get rid of Popes included placing crushed glass in figs or lemons offered to the Holy Father. But the gradual separation of Church and State in Europe changed the nature of a Pope’s power and reduced his vulnerability. Popes now expect to die a normal death.
On 13 May 1981, a Turk called Mehmet Ali Agca, in the pay of the Soviet bloc, fired twice at the Pope in Rome. A bullet lodged in his body, but he survived. Later, the Pope visited Agca in his prison to forgive him, and heard Agca say, in astonishment, "How is it that I did not kill you?" Pope John Paul II offered the bullet extracted from his body at the shrine of Virgin Mary in Fatimah. He knew who had saved him. He also knew that it was his destiny to make the revelation come true. He had in fact started such a mission much before 1981.
When Karol Wojtyla became Pope, Yuri Andropov, the celebrated chief of the KGB and later head of the Soviet Union, apparently warned the Politburo that there would be trouble ahead. They did not have to wait long. Within a year of his election he visited Poland, then still a member of the Communist bloc, and told a million-strong crowd, "You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies." Now that much more than a decade has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we have the virtue of hindsight, those three sentences sound very much like the beginning of the end. He made history, and therefore has a right to be considered historic.
He was a believer in the classic mould, without private doubt or cynicism. His crusades were against atheism, rather than another faith. He made no secret of his antipathy to Godless communism, and once angered Buddhists by describing their religion as a largely "atheistic system". Buddhist priests boycotted his visit to Sri Lanka. In contrast, he repaired relations with Jews. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue and the memorial to the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Very correctly, he described Jews as "our elder brothers": Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in the same line of Prophets from Adam through Abraham, differing only in who they consider the last messenger of their God. Jesus, the saviour of Christians, is venerated in the Quran as a "Ruhollah", or a prophet blessed with the spirit of Allah; and the virginity of Mary is also a Quranic belief, although the Quran rejects any attribution of divinity to Jesus, considering the one God to be indivisible. He reached out to Islam as well, condemning the Crusades. This might seem a trifle irrelevant, until you examine some of the rhetoric used in contemporary political debate. He may have cooperated with the White House and the CIA in bringing down the Soviet Empire, but he was resolute in his condemnation of the American war in Iraq. He had deep contempt for materialism, often suggesting that little good could come out of an addictive consumerism that defined the modern economy.
Faith is such a rarity now even among the faithful, that John Paul’s conviction in the fundamentals of traditional Vatican doctrine could hardly be popular among liberals. His position on birth control is well-known; he refused to give permission to wear condoms even if the risk was to life. Mother Teresa, who he adored, had similar views. The Catholic Church under him thereby finessed itself out of the debate on AIDS. He hesitated to criticise misconduct of his priests, even when the misconduct was sexual.
Men of power are not immune to contradictions; they must be judged on the tilt of the balance. Personally speaking, and without meaning to hurt any sentiment, Pope John Paul’s contribution to the edifice of the international Church that was his parish is less important than his contribution to the idea of faith. The battle between faiths has been superseded by the battle for faith against the spreading triumph of rationalism. Faith is not rational. Faith is moral, ethical, doctrinaire and inspirational. Faith believes that there are limits to man’s knowledge: he can, for instance, understand how he is born, but not why. He must leave the why to God. As the verse from the Quran that is recited during a funeral ("Inna li-llahi wa inna ilay-hi raji’un") puts it, we belong to God, and we return to God. In an age that raises intellect to the power of prophecy and science to the status of a religion, John Paul believed in a faith that could move mountains. He did move one whole range of mountains, when he took on the Soviet empire. He was never ashamed of the tears shed in prayer. A sufi would have understood this. You do not have to agree with Pope John Paul in order to respect him.
For a believer the strange tale of the prophecy of the Holy Mother in the village of Fatimah would not have been strange at all. His sense of history would be deeply imbued with the doctrine of predetermination, the belief that nothing happens except by God’s will. Does that make him "backward" and "pre-modern", a dinosaur from some "pre-enlightenment" age? There are doubtless people who think so. Strangely, the one quality that unbelief does not possess is humility. It needs must condemn the other to contempt. Three centuries ago the Church sent the heretic to the stake; today, the heretic sends the believer into the bear’s pit of ridicule. The behaviour of reason has not been as reasonable as you might expect.
Pope John Paul II believed in miracles. He lived beyond the age of reason.