Book Examines the "Wojtyla Shock"

Affirms How John Paul II Answered 2 Christian Crises

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ROME, FEB. 18, 2011 ( A recently published book compiles testimonies of the «shock» resounding through the world at the election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy.

«What courage these cardinals have to elect a Pope from a country that is on the other side of the Iron Curtain!» was the first reaction of the Holy See’s secretary of state at that time, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, after the proclamation in St. Peter’s Square of Karol Wojtyla’s election.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, former prefect Congregation for Bishops, recalled these words on Wednesday during the presentation in Rome of the book «Shock Wojtyla: L’inizio del Pontificato» [The Beginning of the Pontificate]. The Italian-language book was published by San Paolo with the coordination of Marco Impagliazzo.

In 15 essays by various authors, the book examines the reactions from different perspectives — the Catholic world, public opinion, the media, international relations — witnessed throughout the world after the announcement of Oct. 16, 1978.

The volume is the first of a series that, with the support of the Italian Episcopal Conference, seeks to historically reconstruct John Paul II’s pontificate.

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio Community and author of the idea of this project, stated during Wednesday’s presentation, «The time has come to move from the patrimony of sentiments aroused in us all by Wojtyla’s pontificate to historical research.»

According to Riccardi, John Paul II «was not only a shock but also the therapy given the two fundamental crises of Christianity in 1978.»

He explained that one crisis was in Eastern Europe, where «fear inspired by communism made one think that the Church could no longer do anything, and where Wojtyla instead represented hope.»

The other, Riccardi added, was in the West, «where the idea was affirmed of an unstoppable crisis of Christianity in face of secularization, in regard to which the election of the Polish Pope demonstrated how the age-old institution of the Church was still capable of youth and imagination.»

International relations

Lucio Caracciolo, director of the Italian review «Limes,» noted that the election on Oct. 16, 1978, was an event capable of changing international relations.

He continued, «It certainly marked the end of the ‘ostpolitik’ of the Holy See,» which in regards to the Eastern countries behind the Iron Curtain «became far more incisive and centered on the figure of the Pope, who did not accept the status quo, and who had a unique and perhaps unrepeatable impact on history.»

Caracciolo affirmed that whereas in European foreign ministries «prudence prevailed, in the conviction that the Soviet Union would last a long time, Wojtyla, on the other hand, looked with other eyes to other times.»

«Faced with a change,» he noted, «the diplomacies reacted with a conservative attitude, denying that new things could happen.»

Caracciolo concluded, «The election of John Paul II tells us, instead, that new things can happen.»

Communist reaction

Hanna Suchocka, the first Polish prime minister under the presidency of Lech Walesa, recalled, «The first shock was Wojtyla’s image on the day of his election,» as he «emerged from the darkness raising his arms to greet the throng in St. Peter’s Square.»

«It was an even greater shock for the communist authorities,» she affirmed.

«Today we know that the documents that were being prepared to establish contact with the Pope who would be elected in the conclave were elaborated skipping over the mediation of the Polish Church and ‘above all’ of the archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla,» added Suchocka.

When John Paul II’s election was announced, she said, the communist authorities tried to find positive elements, saying, «better a far away Pope than a close primate.»

However, Suchocka continued, they knew «how dangerous it was for the system, as Wojtyla knew its weak points and could not be influenced.»

She noted that Wojtyla’s election «presented the double face of Polish society: fear of the communists and the unstoppable popular celebration that filled the squares and couldn’t be controlled.»

And on the day of the election, Suchocka recalled, John Paul II, leaving protocol to one side, «invited all ‘not to be afraid.'»

«No one could understand the profound influence of these first words,» she affirmed. «All this was the initial shock that became something constant in a pontificate that changed the Church and the world.»

Be not afraid

Cardinal Re expressed a similar opinion: «‘Do not be afraid,’ ‘Open the doors wide to Christ.’ Summarized in these phrases is the line of the whole of John Paul II’s pontificate.»

The prelate also recalled the words pronounced by the Pontiff in Warsaw on the occasion of his first trip to Poland: «Christ cannot be excluded from history.»

«Everything that moved John Paul II influenced politics and history, but it was born from the faith,» stressed Cardinal Re.

He recalled the Pope’s impressive «human dimension, the capacity to speak to the crowds, the profundity of his thought, his knowledge of the world thanks to his listening to so many persons, the fascination he exerted on youth.»

The cardinal added that above all what was impressive was «the intensity of his prayer.»

He concluded: «As he said in the shrine of Mentorella, the Pope’s first task is to pray. This affirmation corresponded to his deepest conviction.»

[With the contribution of Chiara Santomiero]
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