One afternoon in the autumn of 1978 I came screaming across Atlanta in my Chevette, rushing from a job fifty miles up the road, hurrying to meet my friends at the IHOP. My adulthood so far was a scramble of post-college roommates, general naïveté and a bad job, with all the self confidence that just having been turned down for a VISA card would allow.
I paid no attention that day, October 16th just like today, when a puff of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel announced the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. Karol Wojtyla, the vicar of Krakow (his church, above), chose the regnal name John Paul II.
If we’d said things like that back then, looking back I’d have said, Whoa, dude. It was a pretty darned fateful day.
Josef Stalin scorned the church. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” he would sneer. The year he said that, 1935, was a long time ago. But on December 1st of 1989, eleven years one month and fifteen days after that puff of smoke in Vatican City, Stalin’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, came hat in hand to Vatican City, pleading that the Pope return the favor with a visit to the Soviet Union.
Stalin’s heir needed the Pope more than the other way around, and John Paul II was noncommittal, replying that he hoped “developments would make it possible for him to accept.”
I do not believe in Catholic doctrine. That autumn day in 1978 I didn’t believe in much beyond my disc-jockey job, rock bands of the moment and girlfriends. But with hindsight, with time enough to have visited Krakow and Gdansk, and Warsaw as both Soviet satellite…
I respect that Polish Pope for his hand in shaping the events that puff of smoke helped set in motion back in October 1978.
Pope John Paul II came to visit Dubrovnik, where we happened to be visiting, on my birthday in 2003. We stood close enough to the Popemobile to be able to read his watch.