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Posted April 6, 2005

A Conversation About John Paul's Life

This was taken from www.pbs.org
For more rich insights on the pope, please go to this website.

BOB ABERNETHY: A conversation now about John Paul's life and legacy with Kim Lawton of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and David Gibson, journalist and author, who joins us from New York.

David, welcome. As we think back about the pope's extraordinary life, one of the things I think that many of us feel strongest is the presence -- the power -- of his personality. You covered him. How did it feel to you?

DAVID GIBSON (Author, THE COMING CATHOLIC CHURCH): He was just a remarkable person. You could not help but be charmed by the guy when you were in his presence -- whether you were one on one, as I was, lucky enough to travel with him and I worked at Vatican Radio for a few years -- or whether you were, like, in a sea of two million pilgrims someplace in the Philippines. I mean, he made that personal connection all the time. And I think in a way the story of the Catholic Church of the past generation -- these past 26 years -- has in many ways, as we saw, been the drama of one man: Pope John Paul II. Amazing life and an amazing personality that really overshadowed, in a way, almost everything else going on in the Church.

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY): And he used that personality, that charm, that force to spread his message, which was the message of the Church. And it was that moral force and charm that were behind so much of what he did and so much of the influence that he had in all of the areas where he touched so many lives.

ABERNETHY: And a lot of people, I think, saw this very modern, this vigorous man -- modern man, he seemed -- and found a great contradiction between what they imagined the pope stood for and this image that he projected. It was a traditional theology in a very up-to-date, modern body.

Mr. GIBSON: I think TIME magazine had a cover -- it was just a year after he was elected, 1979. He had already gone to Poland, behind the Iron Curtain at that time. He'd come to the United States and it said, "John Paul: Superstar." this guy was like no other pope there had ever been. Catholics rallied around him like they rallied around John F. Kennedy, their first president. But in making that connection and seeing this pope using the modern means of communication and the media, and making that personal connection, you also kind of thought, "Well, he's listening to me. He's going to do what I'm telling. Or, he's going to listen to it and implement reforms." But that wasn't always the case.

ABERNETHY: I want to get back to this matter of apparent contradictions. A lot of us in the West, I think, saw him and felt that there were all these contradictions on the social teachings of the Church. Kim, talk about that a little bit.

Ms. LAWTON: Well, he didn't fit neatly into anybody's box. And so the categories of liberal and conservative just didn't work with him, because he was operating from the framework of his deeply held beliefs. And so people would take, you know, positions on abortion and contraception -- very traditional, very conservative Catholic beliefs -- and the other end of the spectrum, you know, debt relief, in favor of debt relief and against the death penalty. And he brought those together because they all came out of his faith. But it took people off guard because of his popularity. You know, they liked the singer, but they didn't always like the song. And that took people off guard sometimes.

ABERNETHY: But David, what was the thread that connected these positions, that seemed to many of us a contradiction between liberal in one way and very conservative in others?

Mr. GIBSON: The thread is his spirituality, his belief, his Catholic teaching. He used to like to say, I think the way Kim was saying it, "I can be understood from the inside, not from the outside." We all try and understand him, you know, from our political points of view -- from our standard political categories, left and right. As Kim said, he didn't fit into those boxes. You have to understand him. He [was] very consistent within his own moral and spiritual and religious framework. But that could seem very paradoxical. He could be chastising the Left -- the political Left,- for example, in this country -- on one hand, and supporting the Right. And the next day he could be again -- on the death penalty, the Iraq War. He went very strongly against, for example, the [Bush] administration.

ABERNETHY: I think the pope's personality was enormously effective, not only with Catholics and not only with people in many countries, but with a lot of Protestants in America who found in the pope's grounding in religious faith something that was very attractive to them. They might not have gone along so much with his positions on consumerism and materialism and all those things that the pope criticized. But the idea of a world leader speaking about everything from the point of view of a deep religious faith was very attractive.

Mr. GIBSON: Look, he had in a postmodern world, he had what some would say was a premodern viewpoint. I would say it's simply a holistic framework. He offered people a certainty. He said, "There are answers to all those questions that we all have and there are ways to behave and there's a certain moral and natural law that we can abide by."

And it's like you said, Bob. I think, you may not have agreed with it, but not only the certainty but the package that he brought that certainty in was very attractive to a lot of people, and not just Protestants.

Ms. LWTON: Well, and that's just it. I think he related to so many different groups of people. Evangelicals liked his strong stand on abortion but also his spirituality and the way he talked about Jesus and used words like "evangelization of beliefs." And mainline Protestants appreciated some of his stands on some of the social issues and things of justice and concern for the poor. But Jews really, really liked this pope despite concerns about how some previous popes dealt with Holocaust issues and things like that. This pope went to a synagogue and opened real dialogue with them. He went to a mosque. He opened dialogue with Muslims. So he reached out to so many different groups beyond Catholics.

ABERNETHY: David, what did he mean when he -- why was the phrase "Be not afraid" so important to him? Mr. GIBSON: Well it was the first thing he said after being elected to the papacy. And, it was his exhortation from the gospel. It was his exhortation to the people of the Church, and the people of the world. He was always talking outside the framework of the Catholic Church as well. It was the message of his own life. Here's a man born in the ashes of Poland after World War I; went through Nazism and saw the Holocaust happen; became a bishop and a cardinal under Communism; and he becomes the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. It's such a burden and such an amazing thing. And he walks out there and the first thing he says is "Be not afraid." And then the second thing he says is, "Please correct me if my Italian is no good," because of course he's the Bishop of Rome. He believed in providence. His life was an example, from start to finish, of the workings of providence, in his view.

ABERNETHY: And how about the suffering of the end of his life, Kim? He seemed to make something very special out of that. And "Be not afraid" would fit right into that in terms of an afterlife.

Ms. LAWTON: Well, absolutely. It just continued on and took on a new poignancy in recent years, when we saw him deteriorate. This strong, vigorous man just, before our eyes, got frailer and frailer and frailer. And the message "Do not be afraid" took on such new meanings as you watched him struggle. I watched him struggle down airplane steps when he would go visit a place. And he was so determined to do it. And you just watched him push through. And, again, he said, "The message is because of my faith, I am not afraid to face hardship. I am not afraid to face death, because of my faith and my belief that this isn't all there is -- that there is a life to come."

ABERNETHY: And you saw a lot of this in your trip with him to the Holy Land when he was doing this tour of salvation -- milestones of salvation history? That being the idea that this is just one part of history as a whole?

Ms. LAWTON: That was a real poignant moment for me, to be on that trip and to see him in these places that meant so much to Christians, but meant so much to him personally as well. And he made those connections between the ancient beliefs and today.

Mr. GIBSON: He really adapted to the circumstances, I think, that were given to him. I think it's so fascinating, here was this man that was elected at 58 years old as God's athlete. This incredibly vibrant, vigorous man, as Kim was saying. And from behind the Iron Curtain; again, not just the first non-Italian, but he's from a Communist country. He was the perfect man for that time, to overcome this East-West divide. I think it's almost interesting at the end of his life, in the way he faced death. And particularly in the context of the passing of Terri Schiavo and the issues of bioethics and genetic engineering and end-of-life issues -- could he, maybe, have been pointing the way to some of the future challenges? The Berlin Wall has fallen, but maybe some of the challenges for a future pope or some of these things that in his suffering and in his death he was pointing to -- namely euthanasia, genetic engineering, etc.

ABERNETHY: Let me ask you about the future, David -- the future of the American Church. What is it that you hear American Catholics wishing most for?

Mr. GIBSON: They really want a more flexible Catholic Church. They want to have, they don't want to be just listened to, but they want to have a real back-and-forth dialogue and they want some real changes. They want laypeople to have more say, they want women to have more say. Again, here is this enormously popular pope and enormously popular in the United States, but people listened to him but they didn't always do what he said. All these polls show that American Catholics [are] extremely devoted to their church, but went their own way increasingly on issues of birth control, of women priests, of optional celibacy for male priests. So he didn't really convince them, even as they found him so popular. So people really want to see, I think, some movement on a lot of those issues.

ABERNETHY: And the Catholic Church is really Catholic; it represents people all over the world, a billion people in different countries, different cultures. David, does that suggest that there has to be more autonomy for different parts of the Church?

Mr. GIBSON: I think to a degree it does, and I think if you talk to bishops and cardinals they are not so concerned with the Left-Right divide, liberal-conservative, as they are with the issue of a little more independence from Rome. There was such a centralization of everything in Rome over the past 26 years of John Paul II's papacy. But the bishops want a little more freedom to do what they need to do. The issues in central Africa are just so much different than they are in Boston, Massachusetts, for example. So there is no one-size-fits-all kind of Catholicism. And, I think this is a big issue for the coming conclave. Two thirds, more than two thirds of the world's Catholics live in the developing world, below the equator, in the South, not in the industrialized North. That may well be the future of Catholicism.

ABERNETHY: Kim, our time is almost up, but I'd like to ask you to think back on this remarkable man, where you have seen him in many occasions, and talk about perhaps your most vivid and lasting memory.

Ms. LAWTON: Well, there are so many, because of the force of who he was. But for me, some of the most important were the interactions with young people, teenagers especially. Even later in life when he was becoming more and more frail, he had this connection with them and they just loved him, and he would only have to make a few gestures and yet he communicated so much to them. And it wasn't just the popularity -- "Ooh, here's the rock star pope" -- but it really was an encouragement. And so many young people would tell me how he shaped their faith because he expected a lot of them and he told them, "You can live out your faith." And that was so inspiring, and it was just really amazing to watch all that happening.

ABERNETHY: David, what comes to mind? What comes to your mind as you think of his life?

Mr. GIBSON: Oh, it was just such a remarkable life and there are -- it is so many, so many memories. He was a celebrity, and of course he attracted a lot of celebrities. He met everybody from, Frank Sinatra Jr., to Brigitte Bardot. I remember being at a public audience in St. Peter's Square and he met the Harlem Globe Trotters one day because they were there for some reason, playing in Italy. And they all get around him, this Polish man in white, and hand him a basketball. And he sort of looks at it and, he was just trying to make some connection with them and he says, "I've been to Harlem." And he had, back in 1979. So he was a challenge, but he was an invitation to everybody. Everybody was welcome.

ABERNETHY: Well, I'm sorry, our time is up. Many thanks to David Gibson from New York and Kim Lawton.