To the elaborate pontificals which for centuries have clothed the Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church and Patriarch of the West, the new Pope has made a mundane addition: a sleeveless cardigan sweater, which he wears between his cassock and his cape. Despite the biting cold of this Roman winter, John Paul II insists on open windows in the Vatican, prompting some members of the Curia to mutter wryly about “Polish air conditioning.”
They are small tokens, but both the gesture and the jests say something significant about the first man ever called from behind the Iron Curtain to lead the world’s 720 million Roman Catholics. They say something also about the uneasiness with which the Vatican has welcomed this stranger in its midst. Even before his papacy began, it was precedent-setting simply because of his nationality. In the nine weeks since his investiture, that novelty has paled beside the man’s remarkable qualities. Scholar, poet, lover of art and music, and dedicated amateur athlete, John Paul II has swept with youthful vigor through the ancient byways of Vatican politics. His accessibility and attention to pastoral issues have won the hearts of his Roman diocesans (“At last,” exults one local cleric, “we have a Bishop of Rome”)—and his charismatic warmth has drawn disaffected Catholic teenagers to his audiences in record numbers. “All generations find they have something in common with him,” says an old friend.
Perhaps most important, John Paul II has demonstrated that he is a Pope less of the Vatican than of the people—a Pontiff who is also, unapologetically, human. He sings religious songs to himself over his paperwork. He prefers a glass of beer to the treasures of Rome’s wine cellars. And though the papal tailors have left their mark on him, discarding his often visible Polish undershirts in favor of nattier French-cuffed replacements, further efforts to imperialize him seem destined to fail. He shuns the portable throne on which previous Popes went out among the people, and he has all but dispensed with the ring-kissing ceremony that traditionally ended papal audiences. Despite the demands of his schedule, he reserves two hours every day for prayer and meditation, and another for exercise. His guards are given strict orders to keep their distance when he takes his brisk, daily two-mile walk through the Vatican gardens. “The Curia told my predecessor what he should do and when,” the Pope recently told a friend from Poland. “This may have led to his death. They will not tell me what to do. I will decide. They will not kill me.”
The new Pope’s conquest of the Vatican has been a work both of will and of cunning. For the first time in modern history, the senior members of the Curia were reappointed only tentatively, because the Holy Father wanted time to evaluate the entire Vatican hierarchy. A housecleaning is expected early in 1979. Curial prelates used to advise the Pope when to conclude an audience by murmuring “Basta! (Enough!)” but this Pope ignores their suggestions. When Msgr. Virgilio Noe, the Vatican master of ceremonies, persisted in offering unwanted counsel, he was treated to a papal tongue-lashing. “I’m the Pope,” said John Paul, “and I know how to behave.” Clearly, he is determined to be master in his own house. On his second day in the Vatican, he left his office and asked the Swiss Guard stationed outside where the elevator was. “On the left around the corner, Your Holiness,” the guard replied. “Show me,” said the Pope. When the guard objected to leaving his post, John Paul gripped his elbow and pulled him along. “Your job is to protect me,” said the Pontiff firmly. “So come along, show me the way and protect me.” In some respects he is reminiscent of Pius XI, Pope from 1922 to 1939, who once dealt with an errant prince of the church by yanking off his red hat and snapping, “You are no longer a cardinal!”
Fortunately, John Paul demands as much of himself as he does of others. His day begins at 5 a.m., and he is at Mass by 5:30. After he has meditated an hour, the smell of ham and sausages wafts down the corridor of his living quarters, and the Pope sits down to a breakfast described by one aide as “more Anglo-Saxon than Polish.” It often includes cheese and occasionally a soft-boiled egg. By the time he reaches his study at 8:30, he has read all his newspapers and briefing advisories. After two more hours of paperwork and Vatican business, the Pope begins his daily three-hour round of audiences. His lunch is served about 2:30 and usually consists of soup and a sandwich. It is followed by a 15-minute rest, a mere catnap compared to the hour-long siestas enjoyed by some of his aged predecessors. When he wakes, he takes his walk, often leaving the tarmac path for foot-worn byways, cutting through shrubbery, always stopping to pray at the facsimile grotto of Lourdes. In late afternoon he spends more time in prayer and meditation, then resumes work in his study until, at 6 p.m., he receives the Prefect of the Apostolic Palace to prepare for the next day’s audiences and discusses pending business with his Secretary of State, Jean Cardinal Villot.
“I don’t work any harder than I did in Krakow,” he told a friend recently. “The only strain I find is that here I am constantly switching languages. I may be reading a document in Italian, then I receive people in German, then more papers in French and English, or an audience in these languages. I suppose I will get used to it.”
His aides say John Paul is relentlessly businesslike—eliminating the customarily effusive Italian courtesies during his audiences, and literally rolling up his sleeves when working at his desk. He has no staff of personal advisers on matters of policy, works out his own speeches in longhand, and is chronically overscheduled, with as many as four appointments per hour. Only in the evening does he permit himself the luxury of convivial friends, serving cocktails (though not imbibing himself) in the less formal of his two living rooms and often inviting them to stay for dinner. The meal is prepared by the five Sister Servants of the Sacred Heart, all of them from Krakow. After dinner he sometimes listens to the stereo that Paul VI, also a music lover, installed in the papal apartments. (Records, along with books, clothing and a few sacred pictures, were the only possessions he brought with him from Poland.) At about 11 p.m. he retires—to the same bed in which his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI slept and in which John Paul I died.
Whether the new Pope will follow his predecessors’ lead in matters of personnel, policy and doctrine is still unclear. He has many posts yet to fill—there are only 109 members of the College of Cardinals, for example, 11 short of the 120 who may be appointed. As a non-Italian Pope, he will probably replace Villot, a Frenchman, with an Italian Secretary of State. And as a theological conservative, he is expected to to be a vigorous defender of the church’s current position on such issues as birth control, abortion, divorce, marriage among the Catholic clergy, and priests who want to return to the laity (he has rejected all such applications so far). John Paul is at the same time a staunch supporter of ecumenism and the reforms of Vatican II. No one knows what transpired at a recent head-to-head meeting with France’s renegade Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, but few believe the Pope gave the maverick conservative much encouragement. He appears to have drawn the line on reformist excess as well. In a meeting with American bishops shortly after his election, the Pope praised their efforts to reinforce the church’s teachings on birth control and abortion, but saw “many problems as well.” One he singled out: the practice of mass confession and absolution by Bishop Thomas Dozier of Memphis.
John Paul is similarly poised on the church’s role in international politics. He takes a hard line against neither Communist nor right-wing dictatorships. “That is not our business,” he told his diplomatic corps recently, emphasizing that relations should not be based on the Vatican’s approval or disapproval of a regime. He will not tolerate revolutionary priests in foreign lands, in other words, but neither will he encourage appeasement. He trod that fine line himself in Poland, and he is known to be keeping a critical eye on two Hungarian bishops who are thought to be too cozy with the Budapest government. The church’s only legitimate political role, he believes, is as an advocate of human rights, and on that issue he is unequivocal. As he put it in his first speech as Pope: “We must aim at this—that all forms of injustice which exist today should be given consideration by all in common and should be eradicated from the world so that all men may be able to live a life worthy of man.”
One thing seems obvious: John Paul II will be an active Pope. Given his age (he will be 59 next May), his reign promises to be long and eventful. Paul VI established the papal travel record (17 countries in eight years), but John Paul seems bound to surpass it. He has enjoyed the numerous local excursions he has taken to establish himself as Bishop of Rome—laying wreaths, visiting hospitals and the like—and he is planning a trip to Mexico City next month. He may return to Krakow in the spring, if the Polish government will extend an invitation.
In the meantime he will continue bringing touches of his homeland to the Vatican—and the Vatican may never be the same. In keeping with Polish tradition, his Christmas feast will be unlike any served a Pontiff of Rome before: borscht, pierozki (small stuffed pastries), roast pork, cabbage, kielbasa and cake. He has already observed another Christmas tradition in the Polish manner. Two weeks ago, on the Eve of St. Nicholas, the day on which Polish families exchange presents, he received a group of Polish seminarians bearing gifts—a soccer ball and a Ping-Pong set. “I accept them with pleasure,” he said with a smile, “but you know my job—I won’t have time to use them.” The group rousingly performed one religious song after another—then broke into Goralu Czy Ci Nie Zal (Mountain Man, Aren’t You Sorry to Leave Your Land). “I get very sentimental,” pleaded the Pope. “Don’t sing it again or I shall start crying.”
Such moments of self-indulgence are rare in the life of any Pontiff, and for John Paul II they may grow rarer still. Yet as he walked briskly past a large crowd at a recent public audience, he was stopped by the sight of an 8-year-old boy with tears in his eyes. “What’s the matter?” asked John Paul. “My father died three days ago,” the boy said, “but they told me you too were my father. Is this true?” The Pope bent down and hugged him. “Certainly it is,” he said, motioning an aide to get the boy’s name and address. “And you may call on me as you would your father.” That, writ large, is his promise to his church and the world.