Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Terrible Beauty of Pope John Paul II

This essay first appeared here in the April, 2005 issue of TheScreamOnline.

The Terrible Beauty of Pope John Paul II

Janosik, folk hero in Slovakia and Poland. Image purchased in Gdansk; artist unknown. 

Gay rights? Yes. I've published, broadcast, marched. Women's rights? Yup. I've worked hard, and paid the price – even in the "enlightened" Ivory Tower. Church sex abuse? As I said in a broadcast essay, it's about time this stuff went public, and married and women priests are two of our best hopes for change. Liberation Theology? I taught in the Third World. My students died of stomachaches.

Pope John Paul II dropped the ball on all of these.

On April 3, 2005, in the cold and rain of a very late spring, I traveled far, to Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Cardinal Egan presided; UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Senator Chuck Schumer, Rudy Giuliani, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy were in attendance. My sneakers were wet with rain and I was cold and my students' midterms needed grading. Why was I there, my pew-mate's elbow in my ribs, my dripping raincoat in my lap? The answer presented itself to me; this was the first clear thought I'd had since I learned of the death of Karol Wojtyla. I was there because I was in so much pain that I felt that I would rip my heart out of my chest if I didn't do something, and this high-falutin, but rather uninspired, high mass was the thing to do. I was, as people do when they mourn, just assigning my head, heart and hands busywork until I could face my real assignment: inconsolable grief.

The face of a feminist, a proponent of gay rights, a fan of Liberation Theology, has run with tears over the death of John Paul II. If you'll allow me, I'll tell you why.


"How do you know if your house has been robbed by a Polak? The garbage can is empty and the dog is pregnant." I grew up hearing those jokes. Grew up telling them.

Oh, you're thinking, so you liked him out of simple chauvinism. You're Polish-American; a famous guy was a Pole.

And I respond, "You don't understand." Poles say that a lot. And then we say, "Let me explain."

Polak jokes, as vile as they were, spoke one truth: Poles were among the scum of the earth.

The word "slave" in major European languages comes from the word "Slav." Slavs were Europe's and Arabia's slaves until the tenth century, and, then, again, under Hitler. Between 1772 and 1918, Poland was colonized; this dark period is called "the partitions." Noblemen were marched to Siberia in chains; there were mass hangings; schoolchildren were punished for praying in their mother tongue.

Lots of peoples have been oppressed. No, make that most peoples. Even WASPs. The Highland Clearances drove peasants from the Scottish countryside to make room for the more profitable sheep.

An old Peace Corps proverb says, "Volunteers come back from Latin America talking revolution, from Asia contemplating their navels, and they come back from Africa laughing." This proverb attests that different peoples process oppression in different ways. What makes the Poles, as sufferers, different from any other miserable, blistered batch of seething humanity?

Popular commentators provide an easy answer: the Catholic Church. That answer is too easy. During the, roughly, two hundred years when Poland was more or less occupied territory, the Vatican was quite capable of telling Poles not to make waves. Too, when Poland was last free before the partitions, it was a proudly multicultural state, hosting Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Orthodox, Arians and Unitarians. Poland's nationalist heroes include Adam Michnik, a Jew. Nazi and then Communist ethnic cleansing made Poland more than ninety percent Catholic only in the second half of the twentieth century.

There's another possible explanation for Poland's ability to propagate offspring like John Paul II. Before the partitions, Poland won the biggest battle in medieval Europe. At Grunwald in 1410, Poles stopped the Teutonic Knights, who were famous for converting Pagans to Christianity by killing them. Catholic Poles united with Pagan Lithuanians; some see this alliance as the genesis of Poland's famous religious tolerance.

Poles were on the winning side of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Bernard Lewis cites this Turkish defeat as the beginning of a long slide for Islam that reached its nadir in the terror attack of September 11. Poles saved Europe from advancing Jihad. Poles did well as well as doing good; some families measured their diamonds and pearls by the bucket-load.

Then, in 1772, Russia, Austria, and Prussia began the partitions. Their decreed goal was "to abolish everything which could revive the memory of the existence of Poland." Poles had a mission: resisting genocide, not just for themselves, but for other oppressed peoples. Thus was born the messianic slogan Poles cried when fighting, as they did, in the only successful New World slave uprising in Haiti, in the American Revolution – think Kosciuszko and Pulaski – and in the RAF, "For your freedom, and ours."

The Polish mythology I'm proposing, in brief: "Our true home is glory. Our current, entirely wretched, circumstances are temporary. We reveal our true selves not in how others serve us, but how we serve others." Of course, this meshes with the Judeo-Christian narrative of Paradise lost.

Not everyone was invested in this; if you go, you will meet as many jerks in Poland as elsewhere. But I've traveled the world, and the fine people of Burma are distinct from those in Greece and from those in Africa. In the dregs of Soviet-era Poland I encountered distinctly Polish lives lived as if powered by lightening.

Even e-mails from cranks can contain a grain of truth. Years ago a disgruntled reader wrote, "I can't stand Poles! I've been there! They can be nothing but peasants who crap in an outhouse and they strut like the lord of some manor!" Well, yeah.

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." So says the book of Proverbs. Poland is one of those places where vision could be a leading export. Modern poets testify to the burden a surfeit of vision imposes. William Butler Yeats belongs to Ireland, but he could have been a Pole. Yeats wrote, "A terrible beauty is born," about the diamond-hard heroism that hardship and vision together sometimes conspire to engender.

Here in the US, daughter of a coal miner and a cleaning woman, long before Prague became hip, I was resisting the American-flavored genocide of ethnic jokes. As a teenager, I got a job as a nurse's aid, earning minimum wage. I saved up. I went to Eastern Europe. I witnessed terrible beauty.

I'll tell you just this one story; this happened in Czechoslovakia, a nation with its own mythology. My Uncle John knew everything there is to know about the forest. A biologist hired him as a guide. The Communists had made this biologist a non-person. He lived in a one-room, underground hovel with sheet metal walls. He was forbidden contact with other scholars. Luckily the Communists did not realize that my peasant uncle, though unschooled, was a brilliant man; they were allowed to associate.

Scientific paraphernalia surrounded the scholar. We chatted in English. He was eager to chat with me, a backward teen. He kept me a long time. I itched for the door. Though he was painfully courteous to me, the scholar's speech hurt me. His vocabulary was broad and his grammar flawless but his speech sounded mechanical, jerky, almost like one of those voice synthesizers that people with ALS use. I was eventually told why. This scholar had taught himself English, with the aid of nothing but a bilingual dictionary. He had never had a conversation in this language he had so painstakingly learned.

I am haunted by this man, by the power of his dream, by the pressure of his prison, by the sound of his voice. I was depressed in his presence and I wanted to leave. I've never left, of course. When I try to do something hard, and I weaken and want to quit, I think of him in his hovel, word by word learning a language he’d never be able to use to read distant colleagues' work and to express his discoveries, his enthusiasm, his life. And I keep going.

My Uncle Jan is at the far left of this photo.

Oppression plus vision is an invitation, not an obligation. It is an invitation that many decline. Much of the Soviet-era Poland that I encountered was as if a diorama of the bleakest aesthetic principles and logic of Film Noir. Life was ugly and irrational, and …then it was ugly again. A pacifist, I felt violated by my own dreams: manning sandbag barricades and machine-gunning faceless enemies.

Late one winter afternoon, I was in a bar mleczny, one of the cheap vegetarian cafeterias the Communists had set up. An old man with a thick stubble was eating fermented rye soup and cheese pierogies. He wore rumpled workingman's clothing. His posture was hunched, his fingers thick. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance. He picked up one of his pierogies, and smeared it across his stubble. It was disturbing to watch. No one reacted. I rose from my unfinished dinner and left.

That old man could have been crazy in the way that people anywhere are crazy. But to me he's the poster boy for the person who reaches a point where he can't take it anymore, and stops resisting the crushing tide of ugliness, and joins it. So, no, not everyone accepts oppression's invitation to heroism. But some do, and, strangely, there are reports of how darkness can introduce light.

Romeo Dallaire was commander of UN Peacekeeping forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. He told an interviewer that he is certain that there is a God at least partly because he shook hands with men possessed by Satan. One night Dallaire wanted to quit and leave to protect himself and his men. At that moment, "there was a sort of a breeze or a sense that came through the window, and I just felt some presence. It's sort of like a vibration or something." He decided that "we were going to sustain ourselves one way or another, we were going to stay and we were going to do everything we could" (Fresh Air). Dallaire identified that breeze that made him change his mind about leaving Rwanda as God. He is not the only one who knows of light because he has seen darkness.

T. S. Eliot, in "The Wasteland," mentions a phenomenon experienced by some humans in extremis – at the brink of their ability to hold on.

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?"

Here Eliot refers to Antarctic explorers who were near death and alone, but were convinced that a benign companion accompanied them.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler, in his book, The Place Where You Are Standing is Holy, tells the following tale.

"The eighteenth-century Rabbi Pinchos of Koritz once visited the home of a disciple who had suddenly absented himself from the rabbi's weekly discourses. He found the young man secluded in his bedchamber, disheveled, melancholic, and unkempt. 'Where are you?' the rabbi called to him.

The disciple, shocked by the presence of the holy master, warned him to stay away: 'Do not approach me, Rebbe, for I am in the darkest of all places, the lowest of abysses, and, in fact, at the very final gate of ultimate defilement! Stay away or you will be contaminated!'

When the rabbi heard these words, he broke into joyful excitement and seized the hand of the 'fallen' man, exclaiming, 'The darkest place, you say? The lowest of all abysses, you say? The very final gate of defilement, you say? Please let me join you! For I, too, want to see the Face of God!'"


During my trip to Eastern Europe, I learned that Polak jokes are correct. We are the scum of the earth. The jokes are only half right, though. This earth-scum hoards diamonds.

That was in 1978. A few days after my birthday, my phone rang off the hook. The College of Cardinals had elected the first Polish pope in history. Am I telling you that John Paul II was elected as a birthday present to me because, as a teen, I scrounged enough dough to travel to Poland? You know I am. Shamelessly.

And I believe your stories, too. He was elected the day a couple got married; an unseen hand pushed a teacher to the front of the line at just the right moment and John Paul II blessed his newborn; a woman was cured of cancer. And all of these stories are true.

John Paul II said mass in Yankee stadium. As he turned to the portion of the crowd where I was, I felt – palpably – his charisma. Pinpricks in throngs report: "You feel as if he is talking just to you." Illusion? Then explain this: when the sun shines, it shines on billions, and, yet, you feel it, it changes your day, as intimate as a warm liquid swallowed down your throat. That you share a light weakens the light not at all. Illusion? What could be more real than the millions gathered in Rome, their only reward to walk, hurried by guards, past his mortal remains? In April, 2005, "How many legions has the pope?" ceased being the snarky retort of Godless Communists and became the panicked cry of the operators of Rome's port-o-potties.

Illusion? Almost everyone I know has at least one miracle story, information they knew that they could not have known, dreams that predicted the future, sudden reversals of ill fortune to good. Miracle stories involve love. How powerful is love, anyway? As powerful as the sun? What happens when a man surrenders to love everyday of his life? Why don't we perform an experiment, and find out?


Love? Love?

For many, nothing is more abrasive of the skin encasing the heart, than the wall-to-wall media coverage of what a good man John Paul II was. The accolades from Jews, Muslims, Communists – from Fidel Castro! From the Dalai Lama. People concerned with gay rights, women's rights and AIDS have expressed much pain.

"Hey," these voices are saying. "We are part of the human race!" they are saying. "And he said that our love is evil, that we are inferior. How dare you equate such hatred with love? Do you know how abandoned we feel?"

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do, actually. But I've already bored you with Poland's sob story; I won't trouble you with my own. Please, though, bear with me just a bit longer…


Mystics say that before we are born, we choose the lives we are to lead. Tell me, who would choose this one? He was born in a country that hadn't existed two years before his birth, a country wracked by the wretchedness of all post-colonial states, from internecine killings to a shaky economy to train tracks that did not mesh from one region to the next; differing colonial powers used different gauges. His mother died when he was nine. His classmates would later recall that his pants were made out of his father's hand-me-down uniforms. His brother, and then his father, died. As he put it, "At twenty I had already lost all the people I loved, and even those I might have loved, like my older sister who, they said, died, six years before I was born." One day while he was serving as an altar boy at mass, invading Nazis bombed Krakow, his city.

The world is rightly well-informed about Jewish suffering during WW II, and the world is largely ignorant about what happened to non-Jewish Poles. Without that understanding, one can't understand Pope John Paul II.

Historian Michael Steinlauf, son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, wrote that Poles, "after the Jews and the Gypsies, [were] the most relentlessly tormented national group in Hitler's Europe." Hitler's stated plan was to murder "without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language." For almost the first two years of its existence, most of Auschwitz's inmates were arrested and detained as Poles. Non-Jewish Poles were among the first to be gassed there with Zyklon B.

Estimates of non-Jewish Poles killed by Nazis run between two and three million. One estimate of non-Jewish Poles enslaved puts that number at two million. Two hundred fifty thousand Polish children were taken from their parents and relocated to Germany, to be raised as Germans, because their "superior" traits revealed German ancestry. The Nazis erased 300 Polish villages. The Soviets invaded from the east as the Nazis invaded from the west. During this Soviet occupation, wrote Jan Gross, "the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction."

How did Karol Wojtyla respond?

"'It was the first wartime Mass before the altar of the crucified Christ and the scream of sirens and the thud of explosions have remained forever in my memory – nonetheless Karol in his imperturbable way had crossed over the bridge and walked to the Cathedral because he was always observant in his religious commitments.'

After he left Mass, he walked through the agitated crowds with his friend, the actor and theater director, Juliusz Kydrynski. German pilots were dropping bombs all over the city. The two friends stood inside a courtyard watching the smoke and mayhem...Juliusz remembers Karol's calm demeanor:

'All hell was breaking loose – and Karol stood by the wall as it trembled in its foundations not showing the slightest fear – if Karol was praying, he was praying in his soul quietly...'" (WGBH Educational Foundation.)

In a stone quarry, Wojtyla was a "slave laborer," according to his friend Gilbert Levine. Wojtyla was struck by a German vehicle; unconscious, he was left for dead. Had a passerby not aided him; he probably would have died. He survived the occupation at least twice by hiding from Nazis, once in his own basement, once in the home of an archbishop.

Karol resisted. He performed Polish national works in an underground theater. Nazis were executing Poles for such crimes as owning a radio. Performing Polish works in an underground theater was vital resistance, for which one risked one's life.

Karol decided to become a priest. Polish priests had been singled out for torture and extermination. They were subject to gruesome medical experiments. Eventually thousands would be murdered. In one region, Pelplin, forty-six percent of priests died in concentration camps. That a handsome, gifted young man would find the priesthood inviting under these conditions is extraordinary.

In January, 1945, this young seminarian would save the life of a Jewish girl, Edith Zierer. He fed her and carried her to safety. Had he not, later, gained world fame, the only pages to know this story would have been those of Edith Zierer's diary.

After the war, there was no liberation. Soviets invaded, and something close to civil war broke out. Under Communism, Wojtyla's superior, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, was arrested and imprisoned.

I know people, and I do not condemn these people, who have surrendered their faces to masks of bitterness, cynicism, or even just a stubborn, numb refusal to engage because of just one of these wounds. "My mother died when I was young…I have seen the worst of humanity. And, so, you can't expect anything but poison, perversity, or heavy sighs from me."

Think of that face we first espied on the Vatican balcony, back on October 16, 1978 after the announcement, "Habemus papem." That face was dimpled. It was smiling.

And who would choose this life: being shot in the stomach, the arm, the hand. A vigorous athlete, relishing the speed and freedom of skiing down snowy slopes, imprisoned by Parkinson's Disease. Inexorably, his body becomes a prison squeezing his lungs and heart. This public performer used to relying on his stalwart good looks must appear before photographers stooped, drooling, and barely coherent.


The 1999 PBS' Frontline documentary, "The Millennial Pope," featured important scholars and social activists voicing their gripes against John Paul II. These were important, smart, concerned people. I agreed with their points. Compared to John Paul II, they came across as petulant children. Some seemed simply whiney.

They came across as inauthentic; John Paul II came across as authentic. He believed in Jesus Christ. He lived his life according to that belief, to the best of his ability. How many people do you know who actually live by what they say they believe?

I can't imagine Bishop Karol Wojtyla whining on national television that the communist authorities would not permit him to build a church in Nowa Huta.

Krakow was Poland's cultural center, home to many ancient cathedrals and monuments that, together, mutely and perpetually, recounted the Polish myth. Stalin decided to build a steel mill there. Smokestack fumes would corrode Krakow's old stones, and the proletariat would rewrite Polish history. There was to be no church in Nowa Huta.

The proletariat demanded a church. Authorities denied permission to build. And, so, Karol Wojtyla, his priests and congregants…built a church in Nowa Huta.

It took twenty years. They were twenty years of non-violent protest, of open air masses, of erected crosses being pulled down and put right back up again, of filled-out forms and filed requests disappearing down bureaucratic black holes. But they got the church. The altar cross was made from shrapnel removed from Polish soldiers' wounds. Talk about turning swords into ploughshares. Talk about turning ugliness into beauty.

"Live as if you are free," John Paul II counseled dissident leaders Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, before Communism fell in 1989. Not, "An eye for an eye." Not, "Mock and whine." Not even, "Act nice in public but always bear a grudge and nurse your resentments." Just, "Live as if you are free."


There is no reconciliation between the Bible's – between John Paul II's – insistence on the worth and dignity of each human being and homophobia and misogyny. To the Christian, it is clear: John Paul II was human, not God. Humans "see as through a glass, darkly."

But what a magnificent human. John Paul II is more than his failings. We need to acknowledge that to be part of any effort to make the world a better place.

The millions, perhaps billions, who mourned him, are correct. John Paul II raised the bar. He challenges us. Long before that step out onto the Vatican balcony and into history, he was a little boy who spoke out against anti-Semitism in his own hometown. He kept his eyes on the prize, even as bombs fell. He remained focused, even as he survived the two most murderous regimes of the bloody twentieth century. He won his magnificent race step by step, alone, endangered, wounded, without fanfare, missing his mother, even a sister he never knew, doing the very small work that was right in front of him – serving mass, performing an underground play that only four or five people might see, bringing bread to a Jewish prisoner, building a cathedral brick by brick; he did all this before we ever met him, when he was part of a people defined as the scum of the earth, by powerful others who were acting on that definition by putting people like him in concentration camps and using them for medical experiments. In those humble, patient, loving steps, Karol Wojtyla marched to the center of the world stage, to become the most recognized human being on the face of the earth.

I will spend the rest of my days trying to emulate Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. I hope others do, as well. What better model could there be for those of us trying to build a church we have been told it is forbidden to build?


  1. I had no idea at all where you were going with this in the beginning but I'm glad I stuck through to read it all. It was very moving and touching. Yes, he challenges us all to try to "do good", to try to make it all better.

  2. I'm glad you stuck with it, too. :-)

  3. As for me he was the reason to leave the catholic church. what reason? well, I expect from religious leader to be a leader in religious questions but not in political area. I expected from a Christian to be a living example of Christian values. it may be me to expect to much but I have to live with it and make decisions for my self based on my concious. I don't disagree with the great achievement on political fields. I only did not expect the pope to be on this field.

    I was blessed with many great teachers in my life. teachers who did not teach me what to think but teach me to think, from science to religion. living around Hindu, Muslims, Taoist, Buddhists, Confucian and Christians I am glad not to be in the prison of Catholicism. I relay do. and this is the only thing I am thankful to Pope Johannes Paul II.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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