From poems to exhortations, the pope’s printed word fills volumes and holds steady on the best-seller lists.
We may not agree, but we respond, and it’s no mystery why: Americans hunger for firm moral stands.
You might expect it of John Grisham or Jackie Collins, but not of Pope John Paul II.
Yet, it is the pope’s prolific output that has crowded bookstore windows lately.
“Crossing the Threshold of Hope” is his academic and theological reflection on a range of topics, from the existence of God to the ties that bind world religions.
“Prayers and Devotions” is the pontiff’s book of daily reflections based on the Roman Catholic church year. It nurtures the souls more than challenges the minds of the world’s 1 billion Catholics.
Even the dust jacket shows the softer side of the pope. His tender smile all but announces that “pope” derives from the Greek word for “father.”
Two other releases are works Pope John completed before his election to the Vatican.
“Love and Responsibility” is a reprint, first published in 1960. It is his pastoral guide to marriage and sex, written when he was a bishop in his native Poland.
“The Place Within” is a collection of poems that spans 50 years. The earliest date from 1939, when he was a young man, dreaming of a career as an actor or philosopher. The most recent are from 1978, the year he was named pope.
There are clues to be gathered from all these writings about the pope himself and the nature of his faith.
Yet the books are closer to spiritual meditations than to life stories. And this seems to be what readers want.
Six million copies of “Crossing the Threshold” were published worldwide late last fall - an instant best seller.
Well before his book blitz, John Paul had a definite public image. In the 16 years of his reign, the world has come to know this globetrotting pontiff as a grandfather figure of a particular kind.
He is the Harry Truman of the Holy See, the family patriarch who calls it like he sees it and doesn’t hesitate to remind you.
Pope John has an unfailing ability to choose the conservative side of an issue. Contraception, abortion, homosexuality, communism, capitalism - he’s against them all.
The pope stands to the right side of center in part because of his years under Nazism and communism in his native Poland. Political suppression made him absolutely certain of the difference between good and evil and made him a staunch defender of human rights.
When in doubt, count on the pope for this much: He will answer every question according to the orthodox teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church.
“Damnation is the opposite of salvation,” he writes. “Both presuppose the immortality of the human being.”
For baby boomers, many of them unchurched by choice, the pope’s clear-cut pronouncements can be useful, especially at a time when boomers, who still account for the bulk of the population, are moving in the pope’s general direction.
As the latest national elections demonstrate, conservative is now considered a compliment.
The absolute authority of his office, the defense of church doctrine as the center of Roman Catholic faith, and the sanctity of all life are the major themes that run through the pope’s work. Changing times and popular opinions have never fazed him.
In the mid-‘60s, then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla took his place at the Second Vatican Council in Rome. There was talk of reunification with the Church of England, which split from Roman Catholicism in the 16th century.
But John Paul II cast a chill on future discussions two years ago when the Church of England began ordaining women priests.
More recently, the Vatican rescinded approval of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, an inclusive-language translation. Such versions refer to God, for example, as “Almighty” or “Creator” as alternatives to “Father” and “Lord.”
Instead of addressing these matters, in “Crossing the Threshold,” the pope offers a two-page chapter on a women’s issue he considers more pressing.
“In our civilization woman has become, before all else, an object of pleasure,” he writes. He recommends turning to Mary, known to Catholics as the mother of God, to inspire a new theology of women.
Several feminist theologians have this project well in hand, but not, perhaps, as the pontiff envisions it. He sees women’s roles in the family and society being redefined.
True to his image as an intellectual, steeped in history, the pope takes on dense, theological issues without ever talking down to his readers. And he does not try to gloss over complex matters, either.
In writing about non-Christian religions, he is respectful, yet honest about the differences as well as the similarities.
New Age spirituality also meets with papal disapproval.
“We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion,” he writes. New Age philosophy is Gnostic, John Paul II contends - which is to say it accepts part but not all Christian teaching.
While a tenacious, uncompromising nature emerges from “Crossing the Threshold,” a more vulnerable person filters through the pope’s “Prayers and Devotions.” He worries that advances in science and technology have not overcome the violence of modern society.
A prayer in praise of sports, and another for tourism, reflect aspects of John Paul’s personal life.
His book of poems offers a glimpse into his romantic nature. But it would not persuade anyone that he missed a higher calling.
Of them all, “Thoughts on Maturing” speaks to his most recent public image as an ailing man: He may be losing physical strength but not his indomitable will.
MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “Papal bibliography.” Mary Rourke is a journalist on leave at the Yale Divinity School.