“His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time” Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi (Doubleday, 539 pages, $27.50)
One of the most remarkable qualities of Pope John Paul II is the intensity of his prayer. Even as a young man in Poland, friends remember, he would turn pale, or become transfigured into “something beautiful, something marvelous.”
As pontiff, kneeling in the private chapel near his bedroom, he would cry out or groan. Sometimes aides found him lying on the cold marble floor, his arms extended as if he were on a cross.
A psychological profile prepared by the CIA sums it up: The pope has a “mystical essence.”
But as this powerful new biography of Pope John Paul II amply demonstrates, the pope is not just a prayer; he is a doer. In fact, “His Holiness,” written by investigative reporter Carl Bernstein and Vatican correspondent Marco Politi, recasts Cold War history with the pontiff and - in a way - spirituality assuming pivotal roles.
There are some bombshells.
“His Holiness” discloses the clandestine machinations that entwined the Vatican, a superpower of the divine, with the Reagan administration, a superpower with global ambitions. What brought them together was a common goal: propping up Solidarity, the Polish workers’ movement led by Lech Walesa, as a vanguard against the Soviet atheistic empire.
Scenes unfold as in a spy novel.
The Reagan ambassador sliding U.S. satellite photographs of the Gdansk shipyards across the pope’s mahogany desk. The papal delegate in Washington, D.C., entering through the White House “back door” for intelligence meetings with CIA Director William Casey. There is Casey making several trips to Rome in a camouflaged Air Force transport. In Rome, the spook and the pontiff discuss ways to further the Solidarity movement - the pope and the United States are secretly aiding the union - without drawing Soviet military intervention.
“The Vatican would have people believe that the pope is someone whose feet never touched the ground,” Bernstein said in an interview.
“The pope is one of the great actors on the world stage, if not the greatest. … I think they would do well to start filling in the record.”
But the record of the Vatican-U.S. partnership as described in “His Holiness” evolved far beyond anti-Communist tactics, and at times you can almost hear the constitutional purists screaming.
Reagan, Casey and other U.S. administration figures were enthralled by the pope, apparently, and not just as an ally. They really hit it off. Casey and the pope engaged in “intimate, spiritual conversation,” according to the book, asking one another to pray for individual concerns.
Vernon Walters, the ambassador-at-large who shared satellite photographs with the pope, also carried rosary beads to the meeting: He wanted the Holy Father to bless them. With Reagan, who would dub the Soviet realm “the Evil Empire,” the pope shared the idea of communism as morally repugnant.
These enthusiasms eventually would align the United States and the Vatican in some astounding ways. According to the book:
The president, in deference to the pope’s opposition to abortion, blocked millions of dollars in American aid to family planning programs around the world.
The United States, which was collecting intelligence on “liberation theology” priests in Nicaragua and El Salvador, shared that intelligence with the Vatican, which opposed the movement. The information included intercepted phone calls.
After lobbying by Casey and the president, the pope stayed quiet on an important arms race issue: NATO’s introduction of new cruise missiles in Western Europe. The “purposeful silence” of the pope contrasted with the public opposition from American bishops.
There has been no comment yet from the Vatican.
While the historic U.S.-Vatican partnership stands at the heart of “His Holiness,” the book also traces the awesome arc of Karol Wojtyla’s life, one that spans both personal and historic tragedies.
Born into a lower-middle-class Polish family in 1920, Wojtyla lost his mother to illness nine years later. By the time he was a young man, he had lost his brother and father, too.
“Lolek,” as he was known, was studious, athletic and prayerful. Other students didn’t crack dirty jokes in his presence. Moreover, Bernstein writes, while reporters have scoured the Earth for women who had been his lover, wife or companion, “they found none because there were none.”
Nonetheless, Bernstein notes, as an auxiliary bishop in 1960, Wojtyla published a remarkably sophisticated treatise on sex and marriage, one that would deal frankly with subjects like sexual excitement and unsatisfied wives who faked orgasm. Today, it seems somewhat at odds with the pope’s renown as a sexual conservative. One passage:
“If a woman does not obtain natural gratification from the sexual act, there is a danger that her experience of it will be qualitatively inferior, will not involve her fully as a person. … Frigidity is sometimes the result of an inhibition on the part of the woman herself, or a lack of involvement which may even at times be her own fault. But it is usually the result of egoism in the man. …”
The question, at least for some of Wojtyla’s university students, was this: How did he know?
Within the 1960 treatise, Wojtyla cited the work of “sexologists.” But, Bernstein writes, “much of his information came from the confessional.”
Both Nazi and Communist oppressors shaped the pope’s past.
When the young Wojtyla abandoned his theatrical aspirations to become a priest, the Nazi occupation forced him to study in secret. Later, in the Communist era, Wojtyla rose through the Polish church hierarchy, all the while dodging and confounding the regime.
These experiences may have forged the pope’s noted intolerance of religious dissent. As Bernstein documents, the Vatican repeatedly has cracked down on opponents, even blocking a Jesuit election and naming his own personal delegate as leader. Maybe in the context of his homeland, this makes sense: The embattled Polish church could ill afford theological dissonance.
Still, it is the Polish uprising that emerges as the most memorable portion of “His Holiness.”