Images of the Millennial Pope

With a little bit of luck we can trace a certain recent huffing and puffing to a distinguished corps of papal observers desperately striving to keep abreast since 1995 of the spate of lengthy and weighty biographies of Pope John Paul II. More than one Vaticanist has taken great and vicarious pleasure in the easy-to-understand venting of frustration by a papal historian in his review of one of the biographies of John Paul II: "In preparing this formidable doorstop of a book.... Inexorably, however, the story degenerates into one damn thing after another, and turning the page becomes less and less enticing: it is difficult to imagine anyone other than a reviewer reading the book from cover to cover." In one of those strange associations our minds can make, I found myself recalling the Italian political figure who closed a discussion on TV about some religious issue with: "Thanks be to God I’m an atheist!"

We are witnessing a shift in the literature about John Paul II to greater emphasis on the pictorial dimension and on helpful summaries of his rather lengthy writings. The literary genre now in vogue is a type of coffee table tome pairing image and word to tell the papal story. This is an inevitable development, since we are dealing with the first media pope in history, and, as the saying goes, "image is everything." The timing of such publications is critically important, and it is no accident that these volumes are appearing just in time for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.


In John Paul II: A Tribute in Words and Pictures (William Morrow, 208p, $25), the authors, Monsignor Virgilio Levi and Christine Allison, conceive their work as a simple book, rather than a definitive biography, meant to portray through hundreds of photographs and passages in clear and brief prose, the life and times of one of the world figures of the century. The presentation follows a chronological order from the birth and early years of Karol Wojtyla to his election and life as Pope John Paul II. The coverage is divided into three eras: 1920-1942; 1942-1978; and 1978 to the present. Fine use is made of many sidebars to explain clearly and briefly various facets of his life and teachings, and readers will appreciate the many citations of John Paul II’s poetry.

Levi and Allison are both experienced journalists and well prepared for their collaborative effort as authors. Monsignor Levi, through his long years of service with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, qualifies as a genuine Vatican insider. Christine Allison is a well-established author and working journalist. Monsignor Levi had easy access to all the papal writings and to thousands of papal photos, so the authors’ problem was one of choice and selection. In his preface, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York praises the clear, straightforward writing of the authors and their excellent choice of pictures.

Pope John Paul II (Metro Books, 120p, $19.98) is an inspirational volume, presented as a loving tribute by Jo Garcia-Cobb to the life and work of Karol Wojtyla. The author has worked as a journalist in Asia, Europe and the United States, covering religion, arts and the environment, but writing this book transformed her life and helped her realize what her Catholic faith meant to her.

The book’s presentation follows Karol Wojtyla as a young man, a laborer, a poet, an actor, a playwright and a philosopher to priesthood, and then from priest to pope. There are over a hundred photos, excerpts from his early poetry as well as from his writings, and here, too, a good use is made of sidebars to clarify certain aspects of his life and work. There is also a timeline, outlining events in the life of John Paul II from his birth in 1920 to the present day. This will be a valuable resource for writers, radio and television commentators and others.

In An Invitation to Joy: Selections from the Writings and Speeches of His Holiness John Paul II (Simon & Schuster, 224p, $30), Greg Burke has based his work on selections from the writings and speeches of John Paul II. Each selection, blessedly brief, has its appropriate photos, and is introduced by an enlightening and challenging commentary by Burke.

The passages selected are gathered under four main headings: The Human Family, under which theme are included youth, family, love, women, and work and rest; The People of God, which treats Mary, vocation, saints, prayer, forgiveness, death and eternal life, other Christians, other religions and lay people; The Dignity of the Human Person, which includes for life, human rights, solidarity, freedom, peace and war, suffering and evil; and, finally, A Lifetime of Devotion, which is a pictorial biography with a brief text of Karol Wojtyla from his birth to his present life as Pope John Paul II.

In following for the most part a thematic rather than a chronological approach, Burke achieves a tighter and more relevant connection between his images and his text. He is an American author and journalist who comments frequently on the Roman and Vatican scene.

A preface by Archbishop Jorge Maria Mejia of Argentina, who was a fellow student with Karol Wojtyla in Rome in 1946, explains the meaning of the title, An Invitation to Joy. The life and message of John Paul II as seen in the images and texts of this book, Archbishop Mejia tells us, are a reason for joy. We see a man, known all over the world, who proclaims in word and gesture that life is worth living, that it has a meaning, that it is not closed off but is open to others, that love is possible and that all of us are called to form a family with God. All this is made visible in the Pope’s life and message, and in this way it is a reason for and an invitation to joy.

In all three books the images play a distinctive role. They are eye-filling and have a life of their own. And there are hundreds of them. We view John Paul II so often in all his papal and pontifical splendor. But then he looks out at us from his hospital bed in a shapeless and humbling hospital gown. So many times the Pope is seen with the high and mighty of this world. But just as often he is seen with the sick, the poor, the hungry and the homeless all over the world. There are scenes of the Pope immersed in a sea of hundreds of thousands of people at a eucharistic liturgy, where you can almost hear the sounds of the throngs. But then there are the achingly tender scenes of the Pope with a tiny infant or child, and we feel that any word would be an unwanted intrusion. The photo of John Paul II as he forgives and is reconciled with his would-be assassin speaks volumes to us today. And, finally, it is the photos that show us more than any words ever could the long journey of Karol Wojtyla from the vigorous, tireless young man to the worn-out, stooped and pain-ridden Pope John Paul II, slower of foot and in speech, in the twilight of his pontificate and life.

A great value of these books is that we can go back to them again and again and savor the memories, the faces and the moments they bring back to life for us. There are also moments of fresh discovery in photos we have studied before. I was looking at a photo of Cardinal Wojtyla at a meeting in Rome, and then behind him I spotted Cardinal Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul. I had to smile in grateful remembrance.

Each of these three books offers a warm and unabashedly affectionate tribute to John Paul II. They place him at the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, a year he has proclaimed since his election in 1978, meant to be a year of praise and thanksgiving for the Incarnation of the Son of God and for the Redemption he has accomplished. John Paul II sees this as a new era, with the Holy Spirit leading the church toward the Civilization of Love, and for him this is no utopia; it is possible. As Burke puts it: "The Pope preaches one messageloveto the entire world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He asks everyone to be bearers of hope in a world frequently filled with desperation; to be men and women of faith in societies that seem to have lost any need for God, and to be channels of love and generosity in an age of unbridled egoism."

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