The world's most famous Pole chose the week of his 80th birthday to announce the main part of the long-awaited Third Secret of Fatima and, with this double whammy of landmarks, received a fair amount of attention from the British press this week. We have a soft spot for Pope John Paul II in Britain. The Anglican Church was founded on doctrinal compromise by Elizabeth I and, for the most part, anti-Papism died away long ago.
For the most part, I say.
The Catholic-Protestant divide in Christianity is not a major issue for most non-Catholics in Britain - except in Northern Ireland, where it counts for everything, plus one or two regional hotspots such as Liverpool and Glasgow, where it counts for almost everything.
But the current Pope is generally viewed with respect for his historic influence in the crumbling of the old Iron Curtain, if not so much for his doctrinal conservatism. Of late, we have also enjoyed the spectacle of the Pope as a hip icon, paid visits by the likes of U2's Bono.
"Pope John Paul II is simply the greatest world leader of our times," wrote Timothy Garton Ash in 1998, when the former Polish cardinal celebrated twenty years as Pontiff.
Last Saturday, 13 May, the Pope chose to use the ceremony of beatification of two of the three children who witnessed visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 to announce the Catholic Church's best-kept secret: the contents of the third vision, never before revealed. The Pope revealed that it had predicted the assassination attempt on his life in 1981.
The text, written down in 1944 by the third of the shepherds, Sister Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, who survives today at the age of 93, foresaw a "bishop clothed in white" falling, "apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire." She handed the text to the Vatican in 1957, since when only the Popes and a few other individuals have read it. John Paul II is said to have understood after the 1981 assassination attempt that the vision had come true.
Several writers in the UK press preferred to concentrate not on the apparent literal truth of the revelation, but on its subtext. The Pope is mentally sound but looks increasingly frail, suffering from Parkinson's disease and the legacy of the assassin's bullet, and worn out by years of operations and world tours. Richard Owen in The Times ("Fatima trip clue to Pope's successor," 15 May), drawing on unspecified "Vatican sources," felt the Pope was signalling that he believes the "curtain is coming down" on his Papacy and interpreted the method of announcement as a clear indication of John Paul II's preferred successor:
He chose Cardinal Angelo Sodano to reveal that the secret referred to the 1981 attempt on his life. Cardinal Sodano, 73, a career diplomat and Vatican Secretary of State, is seen as a safe pair of hands acceptable to liberals and conservatives.
Elizabeth Nash, writing in the Independent, concurred, affirming that the Pope's visit to Fatima was
what many believe may be his last big foreign trip. His surprise revelation of the 'third secret of Fatima' confirmed the impression that the Pope might be putting concluding touches to his pontificate before preparing to retire. ("Pope faces a multitude of adoring women," 14 May).
The Pontiff decided to make the announcement on 13 May, the 83rd anniversary of the first reports of the visions in Fatima (although they actually took place over several months). The date of the assassination attempt on John Paul II's life was 13 May 1981. At the moment the bullet struck, the Pope noticed a poster of Our Lady of Fatima in the St Peter's Square crowd and was convinced that he had been saved by her.
A word of scepticism: though the pattern of dates may not be mere coincidence, it does not necessarily mean it is the work of a Higher Power. Jonathan Petre in the Sunday Telegraph emphasises that the very policy of secrecy adopted towards the third revelation has led to an obsession with its content and wild theories of conspiracy or apocalypse have abounded for years:
In 1981, an Australian former Trappist monk hijacked an Aer Lingus jet with 113 passengers on board and demanded, unsuccessfully, that the Secret be revealed. During one of Pope John Paul II's visits to Fatima, he was attacked by a man wielding a bayonet.
It is certainly quite possible that the Pope's would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca (or the murky powers sometimes said to be behind his action) chose the date of 13 May for his attempt on the Pontiff's life deliberately in order to throw down a false trail by evoking the spiritual association with Fatima.
Other aspects of the timing of the announcement were not lost on commentators. Not only did it come in the week of the Pope's 80th birthday, it also fell in the year 2000, and in the Vatican's Jubilee year which runs until Easter 2001.
Jonathan Petre again:
It is no coincidence that the Pope, who is exceptionally confident about his own divine mission to restore the Church and in the guiding role of the Virgin Mary, has allowed the contents of the Third Secret to be known in 2000, which he believes could herald a rebirth of the Church. The revelation will no doubt also add to his own charisma: the fact that an event in his life was apparently foretold by the mother of Christ will increase his already considerable kudos and authority.
Pope John Paul's attachment to this "guiding role" of the Virgin Mary has been a constant theme of his Papacy. He lost his own mother at the age of eight. As Timothy Garton Ash has written, to observe him addressing the Virgin Mary at Czestochowa (whom he calls "Queen of Poland") is like watching "a man talking to a much loved mother."
"What better way for John Paul, who lost his mother very young, to cap a Papacy which more than any other has exalted the Holy Mother?" asked Rory Carroll ("A godsend," The Guardian, 16 May). "She saved him for a providential mission to topple communism and lead an often persecuted flock into the third millennium. His leadership may have looked authoritarian but it was willed by heaven. It was time the critics knew," he continued
Moreover, when the known details of the Third Secret are considered alongside those of the first two, the whole package fits the pattern of the themes of the current Papacy. Elizabeth Nash (Independent) noted how the Fatima visions had revealed to the three children not only the assassination prediction, but also:
a vision of hell, thought to predict the Second World War, and had forecast that communist Russia would eventually return to God, and peace would be back in the world. It is hardly surprising such a message should appeal so strongly to the anti-communist Polish Pope.
Some mystery still remains. The decades-long concealment of the Third Secret is not completely over for the text of the revelation has yet to be revealed in full. Bruce Johnston and Ian Cobain (Sunday Telegraph, 14 May) noted Cardinal Sodano's declaration that "all the details of the vision would be made public after 'appropriate' preparation for the faithful." The Vatican is still working on the interpretation to be published along with the full text, so the affair is not done and dusted yet.
In another article in The Guardian ("Pope under pressure to resign after jubilee," 18 May) Carroll wrote what was probably the week's most searching analysis of John Paul' II's current situation. Holding that the Pope's poor health is causing him to have "a faltering grip on day-to-day power" in the Vatican, where "right-wing bureaucrats" are taking control, he claimed that the Pope's 80th birthday is "expected to trigger the fiercest clamour yet for his resignation."
Though there are two precedents for a Pontiff stepping down, it is 585 years since it last happened and John Paul II, though personally keen on retirement to a Polish monastery, is said to believe God wants him to continue his reign. Nevertheless the topic of resignation has had a high profile since Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the German Bishops' Conference, suggested in January that the Pope should consider resignation if poor health impaired his performance of his duties.
On his 80th birthday, however, the Pope seemed determined to carry on. In the Daily Telegraph (19 May) Bruce Johnston quoted John Paul II's chief spokesman Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who claimed that the Pope drew strength from his "habitual sense of humour," as evidenced by a comment after his recent trip to the Holy Land: "one newspaper asked what there was left for him to see, to which he replied, 'The Last Judgement'."
However, the previous day Johnston had reported ("Cardinals gather for Pope's 80th birthday") that the Pope has one "remaining great dream of his Papacy," which is to be invited to Moscow. Is Vladimir Putin listening?
Half Empty or Half Full?
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development published a report this week on the economies of Central and Eastern European (CEE ) countries. The verdict? It depends where you read your summary of the report. The leading Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita noted the confirmation that Poland's economy is growing the fastest of any CEE country, with GDP set to rise by five per cent this year - a rate of growth unheard of in Britain in decades.
If, however, you read the Finance pages in Wednesday's Guardian ("Hopes go east," 17 May) the summary was less rosy, preferring to focus on the report's showing "only Poland, Slovenia and the Slovak republic recording increases in gross domestic product between 1989 and 1999". The Guardian acknowledges that Hungary, Albania and the Czech Republic are not far behind, that official GDP "routinely overstated performance" in Soviet days and also that pretty much every one of the 26 countries which come under the bank's field of operation will show growth this year. But the Guardian's outlook is distinctly realistic rather than rosy: "The risk of setbacks remains considerable."
Oliver Craske, 20 May 2000
Electronic Telegraph (Daily Telegraph)
News Unlimited / The Guardian
Timothy Garton Ash, History of the Present from Amazon.co.uk:
[paperback, published 19 June 2000]