13 June 2020, The Tablet

A Pope of dialogue who defined good and evil

A Pope of dialogue who defined good and evil

A new exhibition explores the legacy of St John Paul II. In this picture, the President of the United States and the First Lady visit the US national shrine to the former Pope.

An exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Karol Wojtyla, later Pope St John Paul II, has been launched online by the Polish Consulate General in Manchester.

For understandable – and valid reasons, given this is the UK – the consulate presents St John Paul II as “The Pope of Dialogue”. This sets him firmly in the tradition that leads to Pope Francis – skipping the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who did not shun dialogue but did see a more urgent need, to combat the “dictatorship of relativism” in the name of the Way, the Truth and the Life.

John Paul II, in all his dealings with “the sick, the young, the poor, the elderly, thinkers, politicians, artists, diplomats on all continents, various ethnic groups, always discovered the human being behind the dialogue”, the written commentary reminds us, against a background photo of black people in face paint, feather headdresses and ceremonial weapons. It’s a nice photo, and John Paul II is smiling benignly at one of the welcoming party.

“You were worried about Pachamama, well take a look at this,” could be the hidden message.

The second photo takes us to Africa. There is a quotation from the Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, with notes on community, poverty and suffering. I will come back to this. A third picture under the heading “Calling for Man”, apparently from World Youth Day in the Philippiines in January 1995, emphasises that “the poor seek justice and solidarity”.

“You are not being sent to proclaim some abstract truth. The Gospel is not a theory or an ideology. The Gospel is life!” This is from the Exhortation Reconciliato at paenitentia, and it could be Pope Francis speaking. The Life issue of abortion is not mentioned.

The next photo, “You’re Priceless”, represents the inalienable dignity of every human being, and shows John Paul II putting his hand on a sick person and gazing into his eyes. It is a powerful image. We are reminded that on 13 May 1992, the 75th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions, he established 11 February, the day of Our Lady of Lourdes, as the World Day of the Sick.

A photo named simply “Christian” shows a meeting with a patriarch and recalls John Paul II’s encyclical, Ut Unum Sint.

“Culture” reminds us not to “cut oneself off from the reality of difference” as that is “to cut oneself off from the possibility of sounding the depths of the mystery of human life”.

Under “Religions”, against a picture of Pope and a patriarch in splendid clerical garb, we are reminded that having a predisposition for understanding every person does not mean losing one’s certitude about one’s own faith.

The next photo, “Thinkers”, shows the Pope meeting the Dalai Lama and finds a quote in favour of human inclusivity in Fides et Ratio. The Dalai Lama has his fans but it was something of a relief for me to come to “Politicians” and see a photo of John Paul II with US President Ronald Reagan. The rubric with this photo is a bit odd, however, as it does not mention the two men’s heroic efforts in bringing down communism and the Berlin Wall.

If the mounters of the exhibition do not think British people need reminding of the momentous events of 1989, they are wrong.

The photo “Jews” shows John Paul II face to face with an unnamed Jewish man. The Pope’s legacy in this regard is indeed second to none.

“Regimes” shows the Pope looking sternly and deeply into the eyes of Fidel Castro. The accompanying subtext says “real freedom”. This is a concept that Castro was deaf to, I’m afraid, but well done John Paul II for trying. “Youth” is illustrated – predictably but happily – by the Pope in a row, hands joined, with lots of smiling young people. And “Elderly” has him in front of a very different row of elderly ladies: “sources of wisdom”, we are rightly told.

“Artists” reminds us of the Pope’s encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bono (unfortunately the Dylan encounter is not used, and I’m not sure whether the man meeting the Pope in the photo is Bono, as he’s not wearing dark glasses.)

“Prisoners” shows the Pope forgiving his would-be assassin Mehmed Ali Agca. Unfortunately we are not reminded of the fact that Ali Agca’s bullet was, John Paul II believed, on 13 May 1981, the Feast of Fatima, diverted by a millimetre so that his life was saved. Nor are we told that the bullet is placed in the crown of Our Lady at Fatima. Would the know-all secular Brits have sneered at these facts? If so, so what? “With Queen” reminds us of the 1982 visit.

The Queen is wearing a blue dress and long white gloves. No mantilla. The Falklands War that nearly scuppered the visit doesn’t get a mention. “UK 1982” shows the Pope and then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. The Pope is praying, Runcie has his eyes open but may be about to perform a small ritual.

“At Crystal Palace” is a heart-warming crowd pic. And that’s it.

Well worth a half hour of your time, even if the exhibition is carefully tailored to a UK audience. We get life, but not pro-life. We get Castro and Reagan but no mention of John Paul II’s bold and unequivocal rejection of communism. Perhaps the exhibitors thought the British could only take milque toast politics, and perhaps they are right.

In the new era given over to virtue signalling and identity politics, name-calling, ad hominem arguments seem to have replaced Fides et Ratio.

What did I learn from the exhibition?

John Paul II appears to have been closer to Pope Francis than I imagined.

What do I regret?

This is personal. Bear with me for another couple of paragraphs. I saw John Paul II once, at Borrowdale racecourse in Harare in 1988. I had been a socialist atheist for a good many years, but, seeing what Mugabe was doing to the country and the people of the country, I’d started to reflect in a deeper and more serious way than was my habit on good and evil. I waited with my family to hear what St John Paul II’s first words would be. “The Lord is my Shepherd!” resounded round the racecourse, in that wonderful Polish accent, and the scales fell from my eyes.

Sitting next to him was Robert Mugabe. Both these men were obviously being sustained by something beyond themselves. John Paul II had chosen the Lord. Mugabe the other thing. It was a long road, but I was received into the Catholic Church in 2005. And now, 100 years after the birth of Karol Wojtyla, we are being reminded once again that the world is a battleground between good and evil. 


Visit the exhibition here.

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