What Would the World Be Like Without Him?

Pope John Paul II helped to free Eastern Europe from communism—a historic achievement for the man and his Church. Now he has turned his moral scrutiny on capitalism

By Robin Wright

As always, Papa boarded last. While his entourage headed to Rome's international airport, Pope John Paul II was still at the Vatican, finishing mass in his private chapel. This time, as he prepared to set foot in the remnants of the Soviet Union, mass was in Lithuanian—his fourteenth language.

After conferring with aides about last-minute trip details and work to be done in his absence, he boarded a helicopter for the ride across town to join the cardinals and bishops, Vatican staff, and press traveling with him to the three Baltic states. Most of us were already on board the plane by the time he arrived. It is protocol for the Pontiff to board last. But since the early 1980s the Holy See has relied heavily on a helipad in the farthest corner behind Saint Peter's Basilica and its manicured gardens, as a concession to the Pope's incessant globe-trotting, for security reasons after two assassination attempts, and because the Holy Father tends to run late.

"It's not that he's a poor planner—he's very organized," a Vatican official had told me a few days before the trip. "It's just that he uses every minute to the maximum. And sometimes one minute spills over into the next."

After he arrived, Papa Wojtyla—as he is known around Rome, papa being the Italian word for Pope—came back to wish the accompanying press a good trip. Now seventy-four, the Pope has visibly aged since I first traveled with him, early in his papacy. The firm skin around his chiseled Slavic face has softened, and the gray hair has turned white. His stoop is more pronounced, and the talk around the Vatican is that life would probably be easier for him—and his staff—if he tried glasses and a hearing aid. Members of his inner circle used to boast that the Pope got up at 5:00 A.M., said first mass at seven, hosted guests at all three meals, read the last briefing paper from his Secretary of State late into the night and on weekends walked, skied, hiked, or swam. Now the same hours and habits worry them. John Paul's one concession to age has been to add a papal afternoon nap to the Holy See schedule, even during his trips. Health setbacks—two bullets in the 1981 assassination attempt, pre-cancerous colon surgery in 1992, a broken arm and dislocated shoulder in 1993, and a broken leg and hip surgery this year—haven't helped. He has been to Rome's Gemelli Hospital so often that when he arrived by ambulance after his latest injury, from a fall in the bathroom, he reportedly joked to the medical staff, "You have to admire my loyalty." His aides vaguely, and inadequately, refer to the Pontiff's medical history when pressed about his left arm, which now often visibly shakes. Sometimes the Pope holds the arm with his other hand, although that rarely suffices anymore.

Yet John Paul, who has surely been seen by more people than anyone else in history, is still a magnet. Like many otherwise irreverent journalists assigned to the Holy See, I found that my initial lack of interest eventually gave way to a certain fascination. The real interest wasn't in the endearing persona—giving his papal ring to the Brazilian poor, or wearing white sneakers with yellow laces (the Holy See's colors), a gift from the kids at Denver's World Youth Day. And it wasn't in the controversial moral writings from history's most prolific Pontiff—the latest, last October, banning not only abortion, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality but also the mere questioning of those bans. What fascinated me was instead the way that this obscure Pole, elected on the eighth ballot to head the world's smallest state, has gone on, with a mixture of cunning and daring, to become a global leader—and not just among the Catholic faithful. Although John Paul II vehemently eschews political involvement, his reign—already almost twice as long as the papal average of eight years—is likely to be remembered most for the way he has helped reshape the world.

I had been told that John Paul had never worked harder or waited longer for any other of his sixty-one trips, which together have accounted for more than a year away from the Vatican, than he had for this Baltic tour. The only place he wanted to go to more was Moscow. The Vatican had historically acted most often in behalf of the Baltics among all the former Soviet republics—particularly Lithuania, which was a Catholic bastion in the Russian empire and is the Church's northern most stronghold in Europe. Lithuania's Church was the only institution to challenge Communist rule consistently after the Baltics were annexed by Stalin in 1940. For their efforts hundreds of priests and thousands of the faithful were deported to Siberia. After John Paul's election, in 1978, the Holy See's interest increased. The Pope once disclosed that immediately after his selection he had gone to Saint Peter's crypt, around which the Vatican was built, to pray for Lithuania.

His interest, and the trip, had a personal angle. John Paul's mother was of Lithuanian descent. She died when he was nine—an event that some papophiles contend contributed to his devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose initial is on the lower right quadrant of his coat of arms and who is a constant theme of this papacy.

But papal interest and pressure seemed to avail little. At least twice in the 1980s Soviet authorities formally denied the Pontiff permission to visit Lithuania. Several informal feelers were rebuffed too. Throughout its rule of the Baltics, Moscow rarely acknowledged, much less acceded to, requests, appeals, or protests from the Holy See. Stalin once mockingly commented, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"

On this trip, a half century later, the papacy replied.

In keeping with Northern European reserve, John Paul's reception in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, was decidedly low-key by comparison with the fanfare and the high-tech, televised glitz surrounding his Denver trip. Despite the blustery cold already settling over Lithuania in September, a time when Rome is still balmy, Vilnius, a city of 600,000, had no heat. Because the country couldn't afford the foreign exchange required by Russia to pay for oil, Lithuanians had hot water only one week a month. The average monthly salary was then only $35, but in the new free markets prices have soared. The price of bread had quadrupled in a year. Whether it involved leaving work, traveling, or spending limited income, going to see the Pope ranked almost as a luxury.

Yet the people came, by the tens of thousands. In just over three days at least 10 percent of Lithuania's population of 3.7 million turned out for the masses and meetings John Paul held in four cities. In Vilnius a frigid, pelting rain fell during his open-air mass, yet I met people who said they had begun assembling on the dark, muddy field as early as 2:00 A M About 100,000 stuck it out for the three hour service, which included token baptisms and confirmations as well as communion for all assembled, many of them served by the Pope.

Two people were particularly helpful to me in understanding John Paul's impact in Lithuania. The first was Nijole Sadunaite, an effusively energetic woman of fifty-five with an unadorned face, blue eyes, and big, active hands. She is well known in Lithuania as one of the heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance. In 1975 she was sentenced to three years at hard labor and three in exile in Siberia, for "duplicating and disseminating" the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. The Chronicle, which recipients with access to a typewriter would retype, with up to ten carbons at a time, for wider distribution, recorded human rights abuses and acts of defiance. It was the longest-running underground publication in any of the fifteen Soviet republics. "I had typed six pages when I was caught, so I effectively got one year for every page," Sadunaite told me, laughing at the absurdities of the Soviet system.

Sadunaite's imprisonment included a stay at a psychiatric hospital, torture, and prolonged solitary confinement. Two years after her release, in 1980, the Soviet secret police began looking for her again, and she went underground for five years. During that period, in disguise, she took a train to Moscow to deliver a memoir detailing her secret life and the trials and imprisonment of other prisoners of conscience she had known in the Soviet gulag, to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union. In 1987 A Radiance in the Gulag was published in the United States.

Yet for three decades—while Sadunaite worked in factories, with abandoned children, and then, while she was in exile, as a charwoman—only a few family members and friends knew her real secret. In 1956, at the age of eighteen, she had entered a clandestine convent and secretly become a nun. In the late 1980s she finally emerged from the underground as a leader in two demonstrations. Both were turning points for Lithuania, the first and most active republic in trying to break away from the Soviet empire.

On August 23, 1987, about a thousand Lithuanians turned out to protest the 1939 treaty between Stalin and Hitler which ultimately allowed Moscow to absorb the Baltic states. The KGB quickly broke up the demonstration, and again Sadunaite came under surveillance. Six months later she and other former political prisoners organized a second demonstration, on the seventieth anniversary of Lithuania's declaration of independence from Russia, in 1918. After services at two Catholic churches, protesters were supposed to march quietly through Vilnius to the main cathedral, then being used as an art gallery. Once again the secret police interfered, this time more brutally. Sadunaite didn't make it to her own demonstration; the KGB had arrested her that morning.

But the public resistance emboldened others, particularly the founders of Sajudis, the first mass pro-democracy movement, which emerged over the six months following. By the time the next anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler accord rolled around, in 1988, at least 250,000 people were willing to march in public. A year later two million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians formed a human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to protest the pact. It was the largest outpouring in Baltic history. In early 1990 Lithuania held the first democratic elections to take place in any Soviet republic, and then unilaterally declared its independence.

I asked Sadunaite what had motivated her to come out in the open, especially after all she'd been through.

"The Holy Father was always an inspiration for me to be more active. I knew he had attended an underground seminary in Poland, which encouraged many of us not to be afraid to be active and to work in our own underground, whatever the dangers or hardships. We were also inspired because the Pope was someone who had escaped from the same system that was oppressing us.

"Even a person who has the greatest good will but hasn't lived under that system can't understand its nuances or what we went through. But this Pope did. He knew what kind of things we were being told. The State kept telling us, for example, that only insane people went to prison for resisting the system. But the Pope contradicted that message. He kept telling us that it was good to resist, that those who resisted represented the future of the nation and the Church.

"I remember hearing one sermon he gave on Easter, sometime in the mid-1980s, when I was underground. He said that people who fight and die for their country are not only martyrs but may be holy. We took that to mean that the Pope understood what we were doing, and that we should do whatever it took to free our land. He said it again and again. He made me want to be strong and courageous too, even when I was afraid."

During one of the breaks in the papal schedule, I stopped by the old KGB headquarters, an imposing four-story stone building, where Sadunaite had frequently been confined. It's now a museum, and the director took me on a tour of its underground prison: through the tiny green cells that once held up to twenty prisoners each and still had reeking urination pails in the corner; through the dark and dank isolation chamber; through the KGB officers' room, still stocked with books on Marxist theory and venereal disease; through the guardroom, with its sprawling map of the entire Soviet prison network; and, finally, through the torture chamber, still covered with dried blood and thickly padded to stifle sound, a black straitjacket hanging on its wall. Over half a century, the director told me, thousands had been executed in this facility. Most were shot; some were hanged. But he was reluctant even to guess how many had been imprisoned here or had passed through en route to the gulag.

Only one thing had been added since the prison was closed down, in 1991. Above the old KGB computer in the director's office was a poster of John Paul.

The other person who offered me perspective was Vytautas Landsbergis, the musicologist and Sajudis leader who became independent Lithuania's first President, in 1990. He lost the job last year, after the former local Communist Party leader was elected President, largely in reaction to economic hardships. Landsbergis now leads the opposition. Although he invited John Paul to Lithuania, he is not Catholic. We met in Vilnius's modern glass-and-concrete Parliament, where I asked him about the Pope's impact.

"I can say that the liberation of Lithuania and the other Baltic countries is a result in great part of the policy of the Pope," he replied, in measured, deliberate English. "The policy of the Holy See was very subtle in methods and levels. His policy was very, very important in the scale of mankind, and especially, of course, for these captive nations."

But on the same level as the United States?

"Perhaps not less," he said, and chuckled. "Perhaps not less."

The United States represented the physical power challenging Moscow, but the Vatican was the only European capital that continued to recognize Lithuania's independent diplomatic representation, he explained. The rest of Europe accepted the Baltics as part of the Soviet Union. And internally the Catholic underground, supported by the Pope and the Holy See, was the primary instrument of defiance.

I reminded Landsbergis of Stalin's sardonic comment about the Pope's divisions.

"The Pope has no armies, of course, but he has the greatest spiritual army," Landsbergis replied, stroking his dark blonde moustache and short goatee. "And our liberation was based on spiritual values and virtues. We had no arms, only this support and the feeling we have of this great European Christian culture."

Landsbergis also said that the Pope's visit played a critical role in the crisis over lingering Russian troops, a key issue for all former Soviet republics. After pledging, shortly before the Pope's arrival, to withdraw the final contingent, Moscow had balked at the last minute. The United States called on Russia to pull out and on both sides to renew talk—and said that $700 million in aid was at stake if the troops stayed too long. Yet when the dispute was settled, Lithuanians widely credited the Pope.

"In the end Moscow realized it would be worse for them," Landsbergis said, chuckling again, "especially since the Pope was coming. I'm sure it helped Russian leaders decide to finish this withdrawal process."

Four days before John Paul arrived, the last Russian troops had left Vilnius. Lithuania became the first of the fifteen former Soviet republics to be free of Stalin's divisions.

In the 1 990s the question for John Paul is not how many divisions he has but whether he can still make much of a difference. The first Slavic Pope—and the first non-Italian one in almost half a millennium—was elected in the context of the Cold War, and his first decade in office coincided with rhetoric about the "evil empire." His personal background —fighting first fascism and then communism—no longer seems as relevant as it once did.

But in the Baltics, John Paul attempted to address the post-Cold War world. The next stop on the papal tour was Latvia, a country that appeared during the Pontiff's visit to be doing far better than poor Lithuania. Since independence, in 1991, Riga's quaint old downtown had been revived, courtesy of capitalism. The brick alleys and streets were lined with newly privatized antique and handicraft shops, chic boutiques, and open-air art stalls. Drivers could shop at Fiat and Mercedes dealerships, and diners had a range of quality European restaurants and new fast-food joints from which to choose. But as dusk set in, hookers with peroxided hair and thigh-high leather boots turned out on many corners, while young Russians peddled everything from Soviet military caps and medals to handpainted wooden nesting dolls from their backpacks. For the first time beggars, including tiny children, were on the streets, often late into the night and often hanging out near flashy casinos reputed to have links to a new Baltic mafia. And for everyone crime had become a chronic problem. Although a few are prospering economically, the vast majority of Latvians are now worse off than they were under Soviet rule. It was an appropriate setting for the Pope's message.

In Riga, John Paul took on capitalism. The Church, he pronounced, regarded the system now dominant in the world as responsible for "grave social injustices." In its worst form it was ultimately responsible for creating the totalitarian and authoritarian alternatives that had divided the world for most of the twentieth century.

"The needs from which [socialism] had historically arisen were real and serious," he said. "The situation of exploitation to which an inhumane capitalism had subjected the proletariat since the beginning of industrialized society was indeed an evil. This, basically, was Marxism's kernel of truth, which enabled it to present itself as an attractive reality to Western society."

The implication, of course, was that it could happen again in fragile and volatile new democracies. Perhaps ironically, two weeks after the Baltic tour the Pontiff's native Poland elected a new parliament. Having pledged to slow the rapid and inequitable transformation brought on by free markets, former Communists won. Just as the first decade of John Paul's papacy was synonymous with an unrelenting confrontation of Eastern communism, so the second decade is shaping up as an equally bold challenge to the inequities and excesses of capitalism, the abuses of liberty, and what the Pope sees as a return to the law of the jungle. Though John Paul had issued similar warnings on earlier trips, the Cold War's end had brought this theme to the top of his agenda. He has warned the new democracies of the world about catching "the virus" of Western consumerism. In a 1990 visit to Czechoslovakia he warned against replacing communism with "secularism, indifference, hedonistic consumerism, [and] practical materialism."

"The dangers that regaining contacts with the West can bring," he told the Czechoslovakian clergy, "must not be underestimated." John Paul went even further with a sweeping statement that he made in his last Latvian speech. He gave this speech to one of the smallest crowds, composed mainly of writers, thinkers, professors, and cultural leaders, dressed in gowns and draped with academic colors, at the University of Riga. In contrast to the passions displayed in other settings, the atmosphere was scholarly. In an elegant auditorium with gray-white stone walls and lofty ceilings, the Pope gave a landmark address outlining his vision of an ideal society. Although he kept denying that he was defining the long-elusive "third way" between the twentieth century's two dominant ideologies, he presented six principles that were effectively a model, even the basis of a manifesto, for a new era.

The ideal state, he declared, is based on law that guarantees everyone an orderly existence and assures the most vulnerable of enough support to avoid falling prey to "the arrogance and indifference of the powerful." The ideal democracy is always in the service of the common good. But, above and beyond its rules, it also has "a soul made up of the fundamental values without which it easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."

Within this ideal democratic state the distribution of goods is "universal" and based on "solidarity." Private property is recognized, but in the context of its social rather than its economic purpose. Work, critical to human dignity, must never reduce the individual "to a commodity or a mere cog in the machinery of production." And all systems must promote "human ecology, implying respect for every person from conception to natural death."

Although John Paul's utopia is enlightened, bold, and ambitious, understanding, let alone achieving, it is probably beyond the reach of most of the nearly one billion Catholic faithful. The largest segment of the Church is now in Latin America, and the fastest-growing segment is in Africa. Neither region has sufficient goods to distribute, much less the resources to support the weak or vulnerable. Nor do they have enough menial jobs, much less dignifying employment, to offer. At one point, as the Pope sat on a green leather chair, looking a bit tired, I wondered how far beyond this cavernous auditorium in northern Europe his message would even be heard.

During my conversation with former President Landsbergis, I asked about the Pope's role in the post-Cold War world. Like the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—with whom the Pontiff began a regular correspondence after their first meeting, in 1989—hadn't John Paul been relegated to the sidelines of history by his successes and the proliferation of political and economic freedoms?

"Oh, no," Landsbergis replied. "First, I don't think communism is finished. Communism is merely changing its face. You know that Satan or evil can have many faces. This evil could be named something else, like 'fascism.' It's the same hatred of human beings. It's the worship of force and violence, not of love and brotherhood. Then the names, such as 'communism,' are not so important. This name could also be 'New World Order.' And we must look what is this New World Order? What is coming by this name?"

Second, he said, eliminating communism was only part of the job. The harder part, building new societies, has just begun.

"I have said sometimes that it seems all Western leaders are Marxists," Landsbergis said, with his ironic chuckle. "No one, with very small exception, is speaking about spiritual problems, about spiritual values. The only sphere of problems is economic effectiveness, zones of influence and control in a rather materialistic way of being."

But is there really a practical role for spirituality or religious values in a world of thoroughly secular ideologies?

"Spiritual values are basic to the restoration of democracy," Landsbergis protested. "The more important side of spiritual values or morality, of behavior, and of the attitudes of one human person to another, to society, to work, to responsibility—all of this must be restored now in post-communist countries."

So this Pope could still have an impact?

"What," he responded, "would the world be like without him?"

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/07/what-would-the-world-be-like-without-him/303936/