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October 2, 1999
Column #944

PBS' Extraordinary Portrait of Pope John Paul II

     On Tuesday PBS' ''Frontline'' aired the finest and most profound analysis ever broadcast on the impact of ''John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.''

     Producer Helen Whitney says that in the twenty years he has ''commanded the world stage, re-invigorating the church in much of the world, he has emerged as a man at war with the 20thCentury itself. As pope, he has defined himself by his opposition to many of the dominant secular ideologies and passions of our time. He has excoriated communism, capitalism and consumerism.

     He has challenged the modern zeal to maximize individual freedom - in the marketplace, in he bedroom, even on our death beds. His insistence on God in our secular age poses the question: Is he lost or are we?''

     The extraordinary, lushly photographed two and a half hour documentary provided a fascinating glimpse of the boyhood of Karol Wojtyla, who later became the first non-Italian pope since the 15th Century. Through his poetry, and the eyes of childhood friends, we see him as an athlete, an actor in 28 plays, some of which he wrote and acted in clandestinely during the Nazi occupation, and as a deeply religious young scholar who attended daily Mass before he studied to be a priest.

     He endured personal tragedies, losing his mother at age 8 and both his brother and father by age 21. He was 19 when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and lived through the horror of a time when 6.5 million Poles were killed, nearly 3 million of whom were Jews. ''For him, the Shoah is not history. He was there...and this has marked him for life,'' says Konstanty Gebert, editor of Midrasz, a Jewish newspaper. ''This is the first bishop of Rome since St. Peter who grew up among Jews.'' He did nothing to save Jews, at the time.

     But within a year of being elected pope, he visited Auschwitz as his first step to heal the ancient enmity between Christians and Jews. He made he first papal visit of a synagogue, declared ''anti-Semitism a sin,'' and published a 1998 paper asking for forgiveness.

     John Paul's impact on Poland itself was electrifying. His first words as Pope were ''Be not afraid.'' On his first trip, where up to 3 million Poles saw him in person, he seemed to give them strength. Suddenly they were no longer afraid. Within a year Solidarity was organized.

     Gorbachev, himself, wrote in 1992, ''Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope and the important role including the political role that he played on the world stage.''

     The PBS Special was not all admiring. It says he stumbled in fighting ''liberation'' theology of many priests and bishops in Latin America who felt that the church had aligned itself with the rich and powerful against the poor. He snubbed Bishop Oscar Romero, who warned that there was a danger that his country could become communist.

     The pope told him not to exaggerate his claims of right wing terror, adding ''You have to be very careful with communism.'' Romero left Rome in tears and one month later was assassinated while he was saying Mass.

     In May, 1981 as the pope was near death from his own assassin's bullet, he cried out desperately to the Virgin Mary to save his life. In his broadcast after his life was spared, he said, ''To you. Mary, I say again `totus tuus ego sum.' or `I am wholly yours.'

     Yet as author Marina Warner says on camera: ''He has set his face against all kinds of changes that would make it more possible for women not only to have a role in the church, but also to have...control over their own lives.'' He stoutly opposes birth control as well as abortion.

     John Paul sees the world as gripped by a ''Culture of Death.'' Consider what he has lived through - the early loss of parents, massive slaughter in the War, and a post war freedom that has permitted a denial of life through birth control, abortion and now a rise of euthanasia. Even with unprecedented affluence, people live ''as though sin did not exist and as if God did not exist,'' he wrote. He even shook his fist at his beloved Poland for embracing consumerism and abortion.

     ''He's onto something,'' says journalist Robert Stone. ''The ending of life, even fetal life for the convenience of an individual, does tend toward a situation in which living people can be killed for the convenience of individuals.''

     The program ends with a deeply moving journey to what ultimately defines this man, his faith. ''John Paul II is not a man with faith. His identity is faith,'' says Msgr Lorenzo Albecete.

     NYU Prof. Tony Judt asserts, ''Reason, argument works, belief even...is nothing compared to faith. I don't think we've had to deal with a public figure who has that kind of faith ever in the modern era.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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