A Man in a Hurry to Beat Time

Tad Szulc is the author of "John Paul II: The Biography."

Nearing his 78th birthday in May and in exceedingly fragile health, Pope John Paul II seems to be increasingly busy tying up the loose ends of his long pontificate. He is determined to leave a lasting personal impact on the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

The publication Monday of a powerful document on the Holocaust, in preparation for almost 11 years and admitting "failures and errors" by Catholics in responding to the Nazis' extermination of millions of Jews in the World War II, unquestionably fits this pattern. The pope had promised the "act of repentance," as the document was described by the Vatican, in a meeting with Jewish leaders in 1987.

The Holocaust document, drafted under the pope's direction by a Vatican commission, is the first of "mea culpa" declarations by the church for its sins, crimes and errors over the centuries. John Paul has instructed a special commission of cardinals to produce such "an examination of conscience" in time for the celebrations marking the start of the third millennium of the Christian era. His hope is to present the conclusions of the "examination" at a meeting atop Mt. Sinai with Jewish and Moslem religious leaders in the opening hours of year 2000. The church will repent for religious wars and all other acts of injustice, violence and discrimination.

Whether his health will allow him to reach Mt. Sinai is obviously impossible to predict. John Paul is known to suffer from Parkinson's disease to an advanced degree and has undergone surgery six times, including the removal of bullets from his body after an assassination attempt in 1981. He walks with difficulty and may be in physical pain much of the time. But his mind is as clear, sharp and creative as ever.

Accordingly, the pope's activities seem boundless in all imaginable realms. Indeed, they are picking up speed. Late in February, for example, he named 20 new cardinals (including two Americans), bringing the total membership of the College of Cardinals to 165. Of this number, those under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the next pope. There are 122 of them, 106 having been appointed by John Paul during his reign of nearly 20 years. The consistory ceremony, at which the new cardinals were formally elevated by the pope to their new rank, almost certainly is the last of this century and millennium.

That same week, a conference on the Inquisition, the first ever such event, was held at the Vatican. It followed the pope's decision to open the Vatican's "secret archives" to scholars; they are free to peruse 4,500 volumes of files going back a half-millennium. Much of the surviving documentation on the Inquisition--imprisonment, torture and death of real or imagined heretics--lies in the archives. Consistent with John Paul's stand on the "examination of conscience," Bishop Tarcisis Bertone, secretary of the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said last month, "this image of the black legend must be reseen, revisited."

The pope's foreign travel is another case in point, with papal trips mounting in intensity, if not just frequency. Last year, he spent 11 days in his native Poland, his longest visit there as pope, in what many Poles regarded as his farewell visit. In 1997, he also went to France, Bosnia (Sarajevo), Lebanon, the Czech Republic and Brazil, an exhausting schedule with John Paul involved in one or another activity from morning until night.

The pope started 1998 with a five-day, four-city visit to Cuba, immensely hot even in January, to launch what may be his final gesture in peace-making diplomacy. Meeting with Fidel Castro and addressing enthusiastic crowds at outdoor masses, John Paul was endeavoring to help create a climate favorable to a peaceful political and power transition on the Caribbean island, encouraging the Cuban church to play a vital role.

Today, the pope is in Nigeria on a weekend visit to that African nation of Christians and Muslims. It is his 82nd foreign trip; all together, John Paul has gone to 151 countries.

He also has found time this year to receive Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, an important meeting from the pope's standpoint in light of recent legislation denying minority Roman Catholics many of the privileges enjoyed by the majority Russian Orthodox believers. The Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, on the other hand, refuses to meet with John Paul, resentful of Roman Catholic efforts to regain a foothold in Russia after the collapse of communism.

In a more personal dimension of tying up loose ends, John Paul has elevated his personal secretary and friend of many decades, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, to the rank of bishop, along with his Italian liturgical assistant and an American monsignor he selected to be the new head of the papal household. The Polish pope has a reputation of loyalty to his friends, and he must be concerned about their welfare once he is gone.

In the Vatican, there is concern about what might happen if the pope becomes incapacitated in some fashion and unable to perform his duties. A prolonged illness of one kind or another could lead to a constitutional crisis inasmuch as popes have no deputies to function as "acting popes." Because only the pope can, for example, appoint bishops and take other significant decisions, the church worldwide could become virtually paralyzed if John Paul is incapacitated. Under canon law, popes may resign (if they are found to be of sound mind), but nobody in the Vatican believes that John Paul would resign as long as he believes that he can perform his work.

And works he does these days. Last Sunday, he beatified three martyrs of the church, adding to what already is the largest number of persons beatified by any pope in history. Late in February, he dispatched a delegation of bishops to mediate the civil war in Colombia in the same spirit in which he had gone to Cuba to prevent one.

Though reactions to the Holocaust document have been mixed--some Jewish spokesmen believe the church did not go far enough in its "act of repentance" and some Catholics think it has gone too far--last week's declaration crowns John Paul's accomplishments in bringing Catholics and Jews closer together. He was the first pope ever to visit a synagogue (he went to the main synagogue in Rome), he presided over a highly emotional concert at the Vatican to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation, and he personally shepherded delicate negotiations for the establishment, for the first time, of diplomatic relations between the State of Vatican and Israel.

Now, John Paul concentrates on new history-affecting initiatives, more diplomacy and still more travel (Mexico is already on the list for this year). There seems still so much to do.

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