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‘Frontline’ finds greatness, tragedy in ‘Millennial Pope‘


For two reasons the popes are back in the news in recent weeks. For one, we are rapidly approaching the millennium, and John Paul II has taken a proprietary interest in that date, perhaps because he agrees with his recent sympathetic biographers who depict him as one of the outstanding figures -- perhaps the outstanding figure -- of our age. An actor in his youth, the pope sees this as his dramatic moment, one last chance to symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth.

The other reason: If magazines come up with special issues on the Ten Worst Crimes of the Millennium, the Holocaust will be No. 1; and all discussion of that horrible event works its way back to the moral responsibility of those who remained silent while it was going on.

In The Holocaust in American Life, University of Chicago historian Peter Novick raises good questions on how the memory of the Holocaust has been used and misused as a political weapon and a source of dubious moral lessons; but there should be some consensus that how we respond when others suffer is a fair measure of our ethical sense. Genesis, a book shared by Jews and Christians common, has as its basic message --from Cain and Abel to Joseph in Egypt -- that we are all sons and daughters of Abraham and are our brothers’ keepers. To turn our heads or wring or wash our hands, for any reason, while others are shipped off to the ovens is complicity in the crime.

The October Vanity Fair has published a long excerpt from John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope, the story of how Pius XII, as Vatican secretary of state, negotiated with Italy and Germany to sign concordats and eliminate the Catholic center political parties in those countries, thus strengthening the Vatican’s control over the local church and the political power of the Fascist and Nazi regimes. He makes a case, based on Pius’ letters and the memoirs of diplomats who dealt with him, that the pope was so anti-communist as to often identify Jews with communism. According to Cornwell, his fear of Russia blinded him to the sins of Germany.

The New York Times Book Review of Sept. 26 gave Cornwell an uncritical free ride. In an interview in the Sept. 26 Newark Star Ledger, historian and Jesuit Fr.Gerald Fogarty says Cornwell has screened out evidence of Pius XII’s hatred of Hitler and has falsely claimed access to secret Vatican documents.

Now both Cornwell and the Sept. 28 PBS “Frontline” documentary, “The Millennial Pope,” link the mentalities of Pius XII and Pope John Paul II -- men who sought to focus the power of the church on Rome and on themselves. It is significant that John Paul, like his predecessor Paul VI, has taken up the cause of Pius XII’s canonization -- even in the face of protests from Jews.

“Frontline” asks some challenging questions, the answers to which may embarrass both church authorities and critical secularists who dismiss popes as irrelevant and scorn the spiritual life as if only simple-minded jerks are naive enough to believe in God.

Let’s say very clearly right now that “Frontline” has created a masterful TV documentary. As journalism it is well-researched and balanced, with superb commentary by a host of scholars, critics and personal friends, the most perceptive of whom is Roberto Suro of The Washington Post. As religious programming, it is a hundred times more intelligent -- and more inspiring -- than the pious dreck on an official church station. At two and a half hours, to adequately absorb it, we have to watch it twice. It’s available on video from PBS (800-463-8727, $19.95).

Some favorable judgments are passed by Jews, who have been gratified by this pope’s statements and gestures admitting Christian people’s failures -- though not the institutional church’s failure -- to speak up for persecuted Jews. Yet they are not really satisfied. John Paul himself admits that he did nothing when he was a younger man in Poland to help Jews during the Holocaust. And he has canonized Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a [Catholic] in a concentration camp, but who was a virulent anti-Semitic publicist before his last-minute change of heart.

The unfavorable judgments come from Catholics, who have seen the church, once visualized as the People of God on the march through history, frozen in its steps. As novelist Robert Stone puts it, this pope wants to be the only show in town, “He’s pope, and you’re not.”

To a degree unusual in TV documentaries, “The Millennial Pope” is both disturbing and stunning in its visual images: with beautifully photographed roiling clouds, sunsets and storms; Polish golden wheat fields against purple skies; the ancient streets of Kraków; tangled piles of naked corpses wheeled from the gas chambers and dumped in a grave; huge crowds hoping for a glimpse of the pope on his trips throughout the world.

The sequence on the “Culture of Death” flashes before us with the evidence that this 20th century is the most evil in world history: burning oil fields in Iraq; starving children everywhere; burning corpses in war; smart bombs hitting their marks; Las Vegas casinos; Jack Kervorkian; the electric chair; and the antiabortion film, “Silent Scream.”

The documentary’s images of the pope himself catch him both in the familiar posture of head bowed, hand clutching his troubled brow, and in his awful anger -- yelling “Silencio” to an unruly Nicaraguan crowd and in a petulant snit, chiding his Polish children who, like everyone else, opted for materialistic capitalism once the communist empire collapsed.

Structured in eight chapters, the film explains John Paul as a product of the death-obsessed Polish history and culture, and attributes his attitude toward women to the way he transferred his love of his deceased mother to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The writer Marina Warner makes the novel observation that the pope’s uncompromising condemnation of contraception actually goes against good Marian theology. The whole point of Mary’s assent, she says, is that Mary made a “free choice” to conceive. Hans Küng argues that in interpreting contraception as Step 1 in the continuum leading to abortion, the pope is ultimately responsible for untold abortions that would not have come about if couples could prevent pregnancies.

We see John Paul at his worst, watch him crush Liberation Theology and listen to how he humiliated El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero -- who, seen in this context, is the mirror opposite of Pius XII. Romero, foreseeing his own death, cried out in church against the right-wing government’s death squads who were murdering his people. In Rome, Romero was kept waiting for days when he tried to see the pope. Finally let in, he showed the pope photos of his murdered priests, only to be told to “get along” with the government. When Romero tried to tell him about the government’s atrocities, John Paul said, “Don’t exaggerate. You have to be very careful with communism.” One month later we see Romero’s bullet-ridden body at the foot of the altar and the massacre at his funeral.

To “Frontline’s” credit, it can still find greatness in its subject, particularly in the segment on the “Culture of Death.” Robert Stone says John Paul is “on to something” in the continuum argument: There is a connection between ending fetal life for our convenience and killing a living person for our convenience, as in the death penalty. In a gripping interview, a prison warden narrates the gas chamber execution of an inmate he had grown to love like a son. As the executioner, he wonders what God will say to him.

Even someone convinced that the current pope, as Sr. Mary Hymes says, is “doing an excellent job of bringing down the church,” and, in Robert Stone’s words, is “killing the faith” of many believers, will find much to admire in this strange man’s extraordinary life. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens if he visits Iraq.

As Roberto Suro concludes, if John Paul II is simply a lonely pessimist obsessed with the evils of this century, he has lost his audience and is a tragic figure. If he is a prophet who sees something that we miss, “the tragedy is ours.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is writing a book about Fordham University.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999 [corrected 11/05/1999]