Maybe everybody has a favorite Pope John Paul II memory. Here’s mine.
In the first week of February 1985, Mr. Wojtyla’s aircraft was minutes from arriving at the Lima airport when guerrillas of the Communist Party of Peru (popularly referred to as Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path) incapacitated the electrical facilities. As engineers scrambled to restore emergency lighting to the runway, a huge bonfire of complex shape appeared suddenly on a nearby hillside. The hammer and sickle blazed brightly in the winter night.
This was the Peruvian Maoists’ creative greeting for the Polish pontiff, who had inveighed against communism, reigned in Latin American proponents of Liberation Theology, and demanded strict adherence to the wisdom of the ancient Church. He was just back from Ayacucho, the heart of the Maoist movement, where three years earlier the cathedral had overflowed with mourners attending the funeral of Edith Lagos, a model student in the colegio run by the Salesian sisters who had become a communist guerrilla. The archbishop, a Franciscan, had allowed this.
But the pope had sermonized to the Ayacucho crowd: “The men who put their faith in armed struggle have allowed themselves to be tricked by false ideologies. I ask you, then, in the name of God: Change your course!” The Lima bonfire was the Shining Path’s quiet reply. Was the pontiff, much interested in the theater in his youth, impressed by the carefully staged spectacle? Mere human beings had brought darkness unto the world, blackening His Holiness’s runway, raining on his Popemobile parade. Then they had transformed the landscape with the illuminated symbol of worker-peasant solidarity and communist revolution.
In Peru and Nicaragua, Wojtyla wagged his finger at the hungry, told them to look for sustenance not to revolutionary Marxism and the prospect of real social change, but to himself, the dream of an afterlife, and his own false ideology. Yes, the Pope criticized capitalism and globalization. How could he not, and retain any respect in Latin America, the most lucrative mission-field of the declining Roman church? Yes, he opposed the Iraq War as illegal and immoral. How could he not, when the entire world outside the reach of Fox News felt the same?
Let’s assume he was sincere. Daniel Ortega thinks so; the Sandanista leader, who might yet regain power in Nicaragua, speaks highly of the man who told Sandanista supporters to shut up during one public appearance. Some others on the left, or in the broad antiwar movement, also feel this way. Seems to me Wojtyla was a gifted man who at one crucial point said “no” to U.S. imperialism. He deserves credit for that, however medieval his general worldview.
So I empathize with the Pope-mourners. But I empathize much more with the guerrillas who welcomed the Pope to Peru in 1985 with that blazing hammer and sickle. “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.” That’s the beatitude the Senderistas expressed to their distinguished visitor. That’s what their comrades in Nepal, the Philippines, India and elsewhere are declaring today. They want their fill now, not in some imagined beyond. Will the powers of heaven and earth prevail against them? I have faith that they won’t.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org