The Vicar

M.J.Akbar – The Asian Age

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
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 top
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 who they consider
the
last messenger of their God. Jesus, the savior 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
criticize 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
reasonable,
but it 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.

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