Pope John Paul II. Wikimedia Commons

Saint and Father

"One of the lines of interpretation of the pontificate of John Paul II concerns the political and strategic consequences of his great pastoral mission." On John Paul II.
Alessandro Banfi

Joaquín Navarro-Valls was one of the closest collaborators of John Paul II, for 22 years director of the Vatican Press Room. In his eyes and in his heart he has the exceptional life of this successor of Peter, who brought Jesus Christ back to the center of the message of the universal Church. With him, Traces reflects on the political reading of his pontificate.

One of the lines of interpretation of the pontificate of John Paul II concerns the political and strategic consequences of his great pastoral mission. Certainly, electing a Polish cardinal as Pope meant seeking a representative of the Catholic Church “from behind the Iron Curtain,” to use Churchill’s expression. And yet, one cannot truly say that Wojtyla had a political project…
No, he did not have a political project. He had something more important: he had a human project. This is the thing that is still most lacking today. If one does not have a solid anthropology, how is it possible to lay down laws, to organize the social and political life of a society and of peoples who are formed of women and men whose identity one does not understand? Such anthropological opacity is still today the number one predicament of our culture.

His message at the outset sought to bring Jesus Christ back to the center of the scene, so to speak. I remember his first speech in Saint Peter’s Square: “Open, I say, open wide the doors to Christ!”
That first speech of the inauguration of his pontificate already contained in nuce the whole conception of his mission. We should remember the cultural coordinates of the time: on the one hand, structuralism, and on the other, Marxism, but not so much the real Marxism of Eastern Europe–which had become merely a technique of power–but the academic Marxism, for example of the Frankfurt school. They were closed visions of the human person, without any opening, where the idea itself of the person was problematic. In total contrast, there was the thought of Karol Wojtyla, developed in Person and Act. The root of the pontificate of John Paul II was to preserve the transcendent openness of the human person, threatened with being treated like an object.

His first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, is also totally founded on “Christ, center of the cosmos and of history.” In what sense did his more “political” mission start out from there?
He always started out from the principle, the origin of the human person, from those two lines of Genesis that are the first biography of the human being: “And God created man in His image and likeness.” History is the demonstrative consequence of that creative act. But God did not merely make man; He accompanies him during his entire personal biography. For this reason, John Paul II could say in Warsaw’s Victory Square, during his first journey to Poland in 1979, “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.” Being aware of this means being aware of the lie of the Communist system of the time as well; it can also be the cornerstone of a great movement of social and political change and, indeed, it proved to be so in history. But this is not in and of itself “politics”– fundamentally, it is a principle of personal identity that lends itself to the building of an appropriate ecosystem for the human person.

Among the consequences of the centrality of Jesus Christ in history, there are, above all, freedom of the person, solidarity among people, and a “subsidiary” vision of society. Do we perhaps have here the origins of the grassroots movements, beginning with the Polish labor union Solidarnosc–“codified,” so to speak, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis?
Yes but I would change the chronology: the principles existed before Solidarnosc, even if they were later articulated in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Laborem Exercens profoundly elucidates the topic of work as creation of man, in God’s image…
Human nature needs work–it postulates work to be able to realize itself as “person.” It is not that people work just for survival; they work in order to be themselves. The pages of this encyclical on this point are stupendous. And naturally he could not fail to use the Second Vatican Council documents that dealt with the topic, such as Gaudium et Spes.

Entire books have been written on the “Western” alliance of the 1980s between Rome and Washington. Even the assassination attempt in Saint Peter’s Square can be connected to the tension of a world that until then had been divided into two spheres of influence, according to the Yalta Conference agreement…
There was no “holy alliance” that some mentioned in those years. In fact, being present at the conversations between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, I always saw a very clear difference between the two of them. One spoke of the “empire of evil” and the other of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.” One was ignorant of the fact that Christianity had been in Russia for a thousand years, while the other knew that the Christian soul remained alive in the Soviet Union. Two parallel lines that could not meet.

And yet the courageous and prophetic position taken by John Paul II in the early 1990s against the “Western” wars, beginning with the first Gulf War, demonstrated that it was not a prejudicial alliance, fruit of a “political project”…
I repeat, there was another plan, higher and more basic than the political one. It was the ethical plan, and it was not limited to the current situation or applicable only to the East-West conflict, because it was an anthropological plan. John Paul II did everything to avoid both the first and the second Gulf Wars. And even if he was unable to forestall those two wars, he did succeed in elevating ethical sensibilities about armed clashes. History has proven him right.

In short, having been at the side of this holy Pope for years, what impression do you retain of his more “political” way of acting?
I will answer with the words of Mikhail Gorbachev in an interview a few years ago: “I would say that the political concepts of John Paul II, his political thought, flowed from his spirituality and were nourished by his spiritual thought.” Not bad for a person who says he is agnostic. But Gorbachev understood this original root in John Paul II.

Could we say, to quote the Italian director who has just won an Oscar, that his political action was a “consequence of love”?
I would say that it is not a consequence of love, but is already in and of itself love, love for the truth and for women and men.