In a recently published book, Faith and Politics: Selected Writings, by Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press) the author refers to his predecessor, the late St John Paul II. Reflecting on “the multiplication of rights” in today’s society, Benedict makes the point that for John Paul II, “rights” did not mean the selfish individualism behind “my rights”; they meant, among other things, the right to religious worship, which he regarded as a fundamental human right, not to be compromised.
This right to religious worship which we take for granted, was a belief hammered out through suffering in John Paul II’s own life. He was 19 when the Germans invaded and destroyed his country, Poland, and 25 when the Communists moved in at the end of the war, instantly implementing their atheistic regime.
All this is vividly presented in a film I watched the other night as a way of distracting myself from current Vatican politics: Karol, the man who became Pope. Made in 2005 before the Pope’s death, it is based on Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II by Gianfranco Svidercoschi.
For those who might not have seen it, I do recommend it. Realistic rather than reverential, it presents the young Karol Wojtyla as very human: torn between his wish to become an actor and his dawning realisation that it was not the future God wanted for him; mourning for the untimely deaths of Jewish friends; caring for his elderly father and grieving when he dies. The constant themes of the film are the inalienable dignity of man, given him by God; that Christ always accompanies those who suffer; and that only supernatural love can drive out fear.
The Pope’s own faith matured amid terror and violence and the relentless attacks on the Church by the Communists. As a priest and later a bishop, Wojtyla never openly criticised the regime that ran his country or became involved in politics; he simply championed the right of his fellow-countrymen to practise their religion, knowing that without it they would be tempted to resort to the same base tactics shown by their enemies.
The film shows the non-violent civic protest, encouraged by the young bishop of Krakow, against the authorities for forbidding the building of a church in the new industrial town of Nova Huta. The actor who played the principal role quoted Wojtyla’s own beautifully simple definition of a priest: “A man for others” i.e. a priest lives for the people he is called on to serve.
The film ends with the unforgettable scene on the papal balcony after John Paul II’s election. My 16-year-old grandson has seen it and found it engrossing. With its mixture of modern history, moral dilemmas and human situations, it is worth showing to teenagers in order to help them understand how a strong faith can shape a life for good and that, despite the current scandals in the Church it is personal sanctity which has real and lasting influence on others.
I now plan to watch the sequel made in 2006: Karol, The Pope; The Man, which portrays John Paul II’s life, from his inauguration until his death.