Thursday, October 16, 2008

Up Close and Personal with John Paul II

Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life: The Pope I Knew So Well
by Caroline Pigozzi
During larger audiences in the second floor apartments, the Holy Father would receive high-ranking international officials and ambassadors to the Holy See. ... Each and every one of them would try to have a private conversation with him, but he would always make his excuses and leave if he felt an audience was at risk of becoming monotonous and predictable. He had developed an infallible two-tier tactic for dealing with such situations. First, as soon as the conversation started to drag, the Supreme Pontiff would adopt the look of a tired old man, which would discourage the person in front of him (who often already felt quite uncomfortable if they were divorced, for example, or cohabiting and knew that the Pope knew). The other trick was to direct the person toward his prime minister Cardinal Sodano while sternly intoning, "Welcome to Rome!" The imposing surroundings also helped to inhibit unwanted conversation.
Caroline Pigozzi was a reporter for Paris Match magazine who became determined to get the story about Pope John Paul II behind the scenes at the Vatican. Partially because of her cleverness and determination and partly because she made the Pope laugh, Pigozzi achieved her goal. The result is a book that shows us more than usual of Pope John Paul II's personality and also enlightens about daily workings in the Pope's schedule. Most of all, the personal tidbits Pigozzi gleans from those who worked with the pope, enliven the book and round out our view of him.
On July 10, 2003, Cardinal Poupard had lunch with him [John Paul II] at Castel Gandolfo. "That day," he told me, "I said to the Pope, 'Most Holy Father, today there are just three things I would like to discuss with Your Holiness: Oslo, Nagasaki and Moscow.'"

"'Just three things?' the Pope replied. 'That's not much for a French cardinal! Aren't you feeling well today?'"
She takes us to dinner, among the pilgrims to Rome, on airplanes, and on vacation with the pope. As well, Pigozzi takes opportunities to enlighten about Church and papal history about particular subjects so that we have context for why she is covering Pope John Paul II on a particular issue. This includes such subjects as how few of the previous popes traveled abroad (except to Avignon, but that is a different subject altogether!) or into the history of the Church in Russia. All this is communicated in an easy to read style that is not afraid to critique, while clearly admiring John Paul II's many good qualities. The many intimate stories make the history lessons go down easily.
Subsequent to his first visit to New York in October 1979--one that, according to press reports, cost the US government and the well-off American Church (a most generous group that donated 23.5 million euros in 2002) some 3 million dollars--a journalist referred in the Pope's presence to his travel expenses. This was one of the very rare occasions when John Paul II lost his cool in public, and he answered with real anger: "I do not consider it something to account for when you remember that we humans were bought for a price beyond measure. There is no way to calculate that. It is stupid. People talk about cost as a way of trying to stop the Pope. People say that he costs more than the queen of England. That is just as well, for the message he carries is of transcendental value.

Karol Wojtyla could not abide the thought of money-changers in the temple. He refused to allow the issue of the cost of his travels to become the subject of controversy. ... For John Paul II, his trips were simply an extension of his missionary and ecumenical zeal. He was driven to develop religious and inter-religious dialogue, culture and a new evangelization of the character of Jesus himself. In his view, nothing else was of any importance.
Those personal stories are what made me love this book, as well as Pigozzi's clear admiration for John Paul II. I was not really interested for another "JPII" book until I began reading but this one is different because it is so personal. On another note, reading over the daily schedule, I have nothing but sympathy for Pope Benedict whenever I think of him and a fuller appreciation for all that being the Vicar of Christ entails on a personal level from the Pope.

Highly recommended.

Two more excerpts from this book appeared previously:

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