Mr. Cornwell misses again

Published December 22, 2004

The Catholic Difference

Here is John Cornwell in his new book, The Pontiff in Winter (Doubleday), on John Paul II’s Marian piety and his devotion to the icon known as the “Black Madonna”:

The greatest of Poland’s shrines was the monastery at Jasna Gora, ‘Bright Mountain,’ housing the miraculous icon of ‘The Black Madonna’ in the city of Czestochowa… On a visit to Jasna Gora, June 6, 1979, [Karol] Wojtyla, as Pope, would inform his listeners that as a schoolboy he had been granted ‘special interviews’ with Our Lady at the shrine.

Get the picture? John Paul II is….well, he’s strange. No wonder he turns out to be a mystical authoritarian who has “muted the voices of the Church’s many saints, theologians, bishops, and laymen and women who constitute the Church’s wisdom of the present and of the ages.” What else would you expect from someone who claims to have had “special interviews” with the Blessed Virgin Mary when he was barely out of short pants?

There’s a problem here, though – the Pope didn’t say what John Cornwell says he said. Period.

What did John Paul actually say that evening? Here’s the text, a kind of valedictory prayer, as published in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano:

Our Lady of Jasna Gora! There is a custom – a beautiful custom – for pilgrims whom you have welcomed at Jasna Gora to make a farewell visit to you before leaving here. I remember very many of these farewell visits, these special audiences that you, Mother of Jasna Gora, have granted me, when I was still a high-school student and came here with my father and the pilgrimage from the whole of my native parish of Wadowice. I remember the audience that you granted to me and to my companions when we came here clandestinely, as representatives of the university students of Cracow, during the terrible Occupation…

An icon, as every educated person knows, is not a work of representational art, like Holbein’s “Sir Thomas More.” Rather; an icon intends to “make present” the person or event depicted by the iconographer. By changing “audiences” to “interviews” and omitting the crucial, iconographic context, Mr. Cornwell tries to create the impression that the Pope is a little crazy. Yet neither the text nor the context here suggests anything other than a deep piety, expressed in terms that anyone with ears to hear can hear, easily and appreciatively.

The Pontiff in Winter is a vile book, and one comes to the end of it wondering why it was written. Cornwell adds nothing to our knowledge of John Paul II’s pre-papal biography, his actions as pope, or his teaching. Nor does The Pontiff in Winter suggest a fresh interpretive line that illuminates hitherto hidden aspects of Karol Wojtyla’s complex personality. Rather, throughout his book, Mr. Cornwell indulges in an exceptionally crude form of the good guys/bad guys, cowboys-and-Indians interpretation of modern Catholic life, much as he did in his previous work, Breaking Faith. To this, he adds the skill in sly innuendo that characterized his portrait of Pius XII in Hitler’s Pope, beginning with the dust jacket photo adorning that nasty piece of work. The result is not biography, but pathography.

The pathologies in question involve the author, however, not his subject. For The Pontiff in Winter tells us far, far more about the personal crotchets and ecclesiastical dyspepsia of John Cornwell than it does about Karol Wojtyla, his life’s story, and his impact on the Church and the world. Clinicians may find it of some interest; readers wanting to learn more about John Paul II will not.

Mr. Cornwell’s otherwise unnecessary book may serve one modest purpose, however. Let it stand, preferably on the remainder tables of the bookstores, as a valedictory: not to the Pope, but to a style of Catholic journalism that has missed the meaning of this pontificate from the outset. Why? Because it could never grasp the elementary fact that John Paul II has not been a reactionary pope against modernity, but rather a modern pope with a very different reading of modernity than that typically found among western intellectual and journalistic elites.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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