John Paul II: A Holy Pope in Era of 'De-Secularization'

Bestselling Author Vittorio Messori Recalls Meeting Polish Pontiff: ‘When He Was Elected I Understood Immediately that Communism Would Collapse’

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The canonization of two Popes by two of their Successors is, undoubtedly, a new event, even epochal. The most important implications of last Sunday’s event, however, are numerous and of great interest, especially if observed in the present context of secularization.

Vittorio Messori was the first journalist in history to have interviewed a Pope. From his meeting with Saint John Paul II stemmed the bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The genesis of this book and some reflections on the newly canonized Polish Pontiff are the subject of this interview Messori has given to ZENIT.

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In your most recent editorial in the Corriere della Sera, you state that we are faced with a “paradox”: an ever more secularized world and a Church that is losing consensus are opposed by very high profile papal figurese, beginning with the two newly canonized which drew vast crowds. Is the process of secularization not irreversible?

–Messori: As obedient readers of the Gospel we must first of all not forget the truth. Therefore, we must be careful not to get overly “excited” by the packed squares. Politicians draw crowds and equally crowded are rock concerts, the latter moreover accessible by payment, whereas canonizations are free … From a Christian perspective, the entity of the crowd is not a valid indicator. Among other things, it is said that a good part of those present were brought with the organization of many Polish dioceses. Also the dioceses of Lombardy, in particular that of Bergamo, mobilized obviously for Pope John. There were then, quite numerous Neo-Catechumenals, Focolares, CL, Charismatics … The paradox is the undoubted popularity of the Popes and the continuous diminution, if not collapse, of all the Catholic indicators, beginning at least with the practice of going to Mass, of religious vocations and so on.

Speaking of secularization, because the pendulum of history moves from one point to another, we are probably entering a phase of “de-secularization”: the abandonment of a certain mass rationalism, rediscovery of the spiritual dimension, of mystery. The problem is that this phenomenon moves as a sort of do-it-yourself, a religions seen as a kind of “self-service,” but which doesn’t respond to a teaching, much less so to a demanding teaching such as that of the Catholic Church.

In any case it is good that these manifestations occur, keeping present that the Popes – in particular those of the last seven decades – have been of an extraordinary human, cultural and religious quality, even for a secular observer. All this has happened while the Church was diminishing with the closure of seminaries, schools and other institutions. However, if there is still fruit – at least at the top, in the figure of the Bishop of Rome – that is good, it means that the tree is also good, despite everything …

The contextual canonization of two Popes, above all the presence of a reigning Pontiff and an emeritus one, is an epochal event. How do you assess it?

–Messori: I distrust expressions that are excessively abused by the media very much, such as “historic event” or “epochal turn.” However, certainly that of last Sunday was an unheard of event: two living Popes (one reigning and the other emeritus) who canonized two of their colleagues, among other things two brothers not of a remoter time but that they themselves knew well. The interest of the world media was determined also by the fact that it was the first time that this was being witnessed.

Turning to John Paul II, at the moment of his election in 1978 you were already an established journalist and writer. How did you receive the novelty of a Polish Pope and what did you write in this connection?

–Messori: I immediately had the certainty, shared however with others, that the election of a Polish Pope – above all of the ilk of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, whom I had met at Turin, when I was a writer of La Stampa, on the occasion of the exhibition of the Holy Shroud – would be a very dangerous blow for the countries of the Soviet bloc. I thought, in fact, that it could be a wedge that would make that system explode as, in fact, happened. I foresaw it not because I am a prophet: all keen observers knew that, despite the appearances, the Communist bloc was in very grave crisis and that a Pope from that world could become the detonator of a system that was in fact in decay.

How was the idea born of a book-interview of John Paul II and what was your human experience with the Pontiff in that circumstance?

–Messori: In reality, I had already done a book-interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, which aroused enthusiastic adherences and ferocious controversies throughout the world, where it was translated into some twenty languages. Ratzinger had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for only three years. He was happy with our meeting and with our book. He spoke about it with John Paul II and the Pope said something like: “Given that the thing works on the pastoral plane, we can repeat the experience.” He thought of a television interview but when he called me to Castel Gandolfo to talk about it, I told him that I did not feel I could accept it, as I was as journalist of printed paper who had never worked for TV. We discussed it and he said he would answer the written questions I sent him directly to his personal fax. Thus Crossing the Threshold of Hope was born, a book that came out in 53 languages, selling more than 20 million copies. Today, even passers-by interview the Pope, but then it was the first time in history, so the noise was global.

The questions posed were not the usual tedious ones that even then were recurrent: women priests, the condition of homosexuals, the marriage of divorced persons, the Church’s commitment in politics, the IOR. Chosen without hesitation were ones to keep to the “fundamentals,” to the bases themselves of the faith: God, Jesus Christ, the Church, the possibility of believing today. What is dramatically in crisis today is faith itself, all the rest is but the consequence of having clarified if there is belief in the truth of the Gospel or not.

Being at John Paul II’s side one perceived an evident aura of sanctity, an extraordinary charism that in fact now, with the canonization, is officially recognized by the Church.

You have dedicated many pages of your writings to Mary: Did Wojtyla, “Marian” Pope par excellence, ever inspire you in this regard?

–Messori: I venerate Mary and am devoted to her not, obviously, for herself, but as related to Christ. The one who interested me was Christ. The more I advanced in my studies of Christianity, the more I realized the importance of the Mother to understand Him. All that the Church says or has said about Mary, in reality, has to do with the Son. All the Marian dogmas are, well looked at, Christological dogmas in the sense that they are the truth that, through Mary, confirm faith in Jesus. Mary, without Jesus, is only an obscure Jewish home loving woman. With Him she is, in fact, the Theotokos, the Mother of God. It is no accident that in Christian symbolism Mary is the moon; she does not shine with her own light but with the light reflected by her Son. This decisive bond in Wojtyla was very clear. I recognized myself in him, in the sense that he confirmed for me that to forget the Mother means always or in any case, in the end, to obscure or perhaps forget the Son also, as the tragic secular experience of Protestantism shows.

Especially in the last years of his pontificate, John Paul II insisted on the subject of Europe and its Christian roots: an appeal that up to now has gone unheard. Yet, in the forthcoming European elections there are numerous candidates who profess themselves Catholics or at least Christians. What le
gacy or teaching does the new Saint transmit to European politicians?

–Messori: I have always said with irony that to deny the Christian roots of Europe is not an offense to the Church or to Christianity. It is an offense to history and to good sense. I have always smiled somewhat mockingly in face of those who wish to deny these origins. As Benedict XVI also repeated energetically, for Pope Wojtyla Europe is the daughter of a message that came from Jerusalem, which at Athens assumed and transfigured the philosophical wisdom of Classicism and that at Rome framed its teaching in the altogether Latin genius of clear and just laws. So says history, true history, not that of ideological schemes. And this is what Wojtyla and Ratzinger always repeated. 

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Luca Marcolivio

Roma, Italia Laurea in Scienze Politiche. Diploma di Specializzazione in Giornalismo. La Provincia Pavese. Radiocor - Il Sole 24 Ore. Il Giornale di Ostia. Ostia Oggi. Ostia Città (direttore). Eur Oggi. Messa e Meditazione. Sacerdos. Destra Italiana. Corrispondenza Romana. Radici Cristiane. Agenzia Sanitaria Italiana. L'Ottimista (direttore). Santini da Collezione (Hachette). I Santini della Madonna di Lourdes (McKay). Contro Garibaldi. Quello che a scuola non vi hanno raccontato (Vallecchi).

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