Sunday, April 03, 2005

David Remnick in The New Yorker on John Paul II

The New Yorker: The Talk of the Town:
"Karol Wojtyla, a poet, actor, and playwright, who had been a bishop in Poland for twenty years, was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals on October 16, 1978. Shortly afterward, Yuri Andropov, the head of Soviet intelligence, called the K.G.B.'s station chief in Warsaw and asked furiously, 'How could you have allowed a citizen of a Socialist country to be elected Pope?'

...On August 31, 1980, four hundred and forty-eight days after the Pope left Poland for Rome, at the Lenin Shipyard, in Gdan´sk, an electrician named Lech Walesa signed the agreement (his enormous souvenir pen bore the image of John Paul II) that created Solidarity, the first legal and independent union in the Soviet empire. In March, 1985, a provincial reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. In 1990, another playwright-turned-politician, Václav Havel, welcomed John Paul to Prague after the fall of Communism, saying, “I am not sure that I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say that I am participating in a miracle: in a country devastated by the ideology of hatred, the messenger of love has arrived.” And by Christmas night, 1991, Gorbachev, who had found an ally in the Pope, agreed to his empire’s dissolution.

Last Friday, as the magazine was closing and the news from Rome grew more grave, we talked with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist who decided to study for the priesthood in the early seventies as he sought to understand the political and spiritual upheaval of the time. Albacete, who was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in New York, met Karol Wojtyla in 1976, and the two men became friends.

“I was a parish priest in Washington, D.C., for a very short time and a secretary to the Archbishop when I was told that the Archbishop of Kraków was coming for a visit,” the Monsignor said. “The thought that this guy would become Pope was absurd. I was told to take good care of him. He was an intellectual, they’d heard, and they thought I could engage him somehow. We met over breakfast, over cornflakes, and we quickly started talking about the truly big questions. I was just so impressed by the intensity of his humanity, an energy, that, if tapped, could power the whole world. I was seeing him without the props of the papacy. We spoke in Italian, but he joked with me that unless I could speak Polish and read his favorite poet, Cyprian Norwid, in the original, well, then I was culturally underprivileged. And, as I am thinking about it now, I remember how he told me about Norwid’s poem ‘Chopin’s Piano,’ about Chopin’s death and how the end of life is so pregnant with meaning.

“I eventually came to teach a course on the plays that he had written,” Monsignor Albacete went on. “I especially liked ‘Our God’s Brother,’ ” which Wojtyla wrote when he was still a seminarian. “It’s the story of the life of Adam Chmielowski, a nineteenth-century Polish intellectual and painter, who accidentally encounters poverty on the streets of Kraków. He has to ask himself, ‘How do I respond to this suffering? Charity? The revolutionary path?’ He finally sees that these are all superficial responses and joins the poor, a kind of Franciscan path.” In fact, Chmielowski eventually changed his name to Brother Albert, and devoted his life to the poor, founding the Albertine Brothers. “When Wojtyla became Pope, he canonized his own character,” the Monsignor said. “There are still some of his plays that remain unpublished. Most of them were written during the Nazi-Communist period, when he was in the cultural resistance.”

Monsignor Albacete spent three years in Rome under John Paul in the nineteen-eighties, working on issues of Catholic education around the world, and afterward the two men stayed in contact. As the Monsignor was speaking on the telephone, CNN issued a report—premature, as it turned out—that the Pope had died. “It’s very sad but a relief, too,” Albacete said. “Lately, when you would see him, his Parkinson’s was such that he couldn’t respond to you with the intensity he wanted. To take away the ability to talk and move meant that he was losing the means to express his personhood. The last conversation we had was in Rome. I was there because he was beatifying a Puerto Rican, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez. I said, ‘I protest, Holy Father! I want to be the first Puerto Rican saint!’ He smiled, said nothing. Then I said, ‘You know, Holy Father, I’m feeling a little guilty. I’ve agreed to go on television after you’ve died to say something or other about you.’ He smiled again. Then he said, ‘How do they know that I will die first?’ He was able to joke. He was not afraid.”

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