In a March 1996 conversation, Pope John Paul II told me, almost wistfully, “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.” His tone that evening was less critical than it was bemused, even resigned. But whether his regrets involved biographers who treated him as a globe-trotting politician or journalists who parsed his every word and deed in conventional left-right categories, the view from outside, he knew, was not going to get anyone close to the essence of Karol Wojtyła.
I agreed with him then; and now, nine years after his death, in the days before his April 27 canonization, I agree with him even more. John Paul II, who embodied the human drama of the second half of the 20th century in a singular way, and whose witness to the truth of humanity’s noblest aspirations bent the curve of history toward freedom, can only be understood from inside out. Or, if you prefer, soul first.
His was a many-textured soul. Some of its multiple facets help explain his extraordinary accomplishments in the Catholic Church and on the world stage.
He had a Polish soul, formed by a distinctive experience of history. Vivisected in the Third Polish Partition of 1795, his country was not restored to the map of Europe until 1918. But during those 123 years of political humiliation, the Polish nation survived the demise of the Polish state through its language, its literature and its faith, with the Catholic Church acting as the safe-deposit box of national identity.
Learning about that hard experience as a boy, Karol Wojtyła was permanently inoculated against the twin heresies that had beset the West for centuries: the Jacobin heresy that the political quest for power runs history, and the Marxist heresy that history is simply the exhaust fumes of economic processes. Knowing in his Polish soul that culture, not politics or economics, drives history over the long haul, John Paul II could ignite a revolution of conscience during his first papal visit to Poland in 1979. He summoned his people to live the truth about themselves, to reject the communist culture of the lie, and to find in that restored national identity irresistible tools of resistance to oppression.
This son of Poland was, at the same time, a man of global vision with a deeply humanistic soul, forged by what he regarded as the crisis of modernity: a crisis in the very idea of the human person. That crisis, he believed, was not confined to communism’s materialist reduction of the human condition, which he tenaciously fought as a university chaplain, a professor of ethics, a charismatic priest and a dynamic bishop. The crisis could also be found in those Western systems that were tempted to measure men and women by their commercial utility rather than by the innate and inalienable dignity that was their birthright.
John Paul II’s conviction, biblically rooted and philosophically refined, was that every human life is of infinite value, at every stage and in every condition. This was the basis of his priestly ministry for almost six decades; it was the conviction that forged his unique moral analysis of world politics; and it was the ground from which he could inspire men and women from a staggering variety of cultures.
He could also touch those lives because of his dramatic soul. As a young man, he confessed in a memoir later in life, he was “obsessed” with the theater. And while he took some useful skills from those experiences on stage— John Gielgud once commented on John Paul II’s “perfect” sense of timing, as Alec Guinness marveled at the resonance of his voice—he also developed a dramatic view of the human condition. We all live, he believed, in a quotidian, yet deeply consequential, moral drama. Every day of our lives is lived in the dramatic tension between who we are and who we should be.
John Paul II intuited this on stage; he refined that intuition as a philosopher. And it was deepened by his Christian conviction that the drama of every human life is playing within a cosmic drama in which the God of the Bible is producer, director, scriptwriter and protagonist. That Christian conviction, in turn, was what allowed him to say, a year after he was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.”
A man whose soul is formed by the conviction that “coincidence” is merely a facet of providence that he has not yet grasped is a man impervious to the tyranny of the possible. And here, too, the soul of John Paul II helps explain his accomplishment.
When he was elected pope in 1978, some observers, fixated on what they imagined to be possible, saw in the Catholic Church only contention and possible ruin. He saw seeds of reform and renewal, leading to what he would call a “New Evangelization,” a new missionary dynamic in Catholicism that would offer the divine mercy to a broken and wounded humanity. Others, fixated on what seemed settled in world affairs, believed that the Yalta division of Europe after World War II was permanent. But after June 1979 and the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, he saw possibilities for dramatic cultural, social and eventually political change in Eastern Europe—and then helped effect them.
If John Paul II seemed able to discern possibilities where others saw only barriers; if he saw (as he put it at the United Nations in 1995), a “springtime of the human spirit” after a winter of murderous discontent embodied in two world wars, the gulag and Auschwitz—well, one could look to his keen mind for an explanation. But the deeper explanation lies in his soul, and in the human character formed by that soul.
It was John Paul’s soul in which hundreds of millions of human beings found an exemplar of decency and an icon of hope. It was the character formed by that soul that made him a champion of resistance against the tyranny of diminished expectations, personal and political.