Exaggerated love

Ten years ago, on the evening of December 6, 1995, Pope John Paul II changed my life.

In May of that year, I had begun talking with his press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, about the necessity of a reliable papal biography — and the possibility that I might take on such a project. Over dinner on December 6, and after Father Richard John Neuhaus had raised the point, it was John Paul himself who made it rather vigorously clear that he thought I should write the story of his life and pontificate. He thus set me off on the ten-year adventure that has continued beyond Witness to Hope to the recently-published God’s Choice, which tells the story of John Paul’s death and the election of Joseph Ratzinger as his successor.

“What struck you most about John Paul II?” is a question I’ve been asked innumerable times. Every year, Christmastime reminds me of the late pope’s profound faith in the Incarnation. Karol Wojtyla loved the Christmas season and made it last as long as possible — according to Polish custom, the decorations stayed up and the carols were sung right through to February 2, the liturgical feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. This affection for Christmas was far more than ethnic habit, though. It grew from John Paul’s deep-set conviction that in the birth of Christ we meet, in the flesh, the exaggerated infinity of God’s love.

Creation displays the boundlessness of that love — that’s what Christians see, that’s the “design” we perceive, when we look at the natural world. The Incarnation both confirms and takes us far beyond that perception: here, in the child born to Mary of Nazareth, we see the measureless love of God in the flesh, as one of us. Like the Magi, we come to understand that God’s love is not just (just!) infinite; its infinity is exaggerated, spilling beyond the Infinite to embrace the finite, so that what is flesh and finitude is drawn up into the infinite life of Love itself. It’s because of the manger that we can say, with the apostle John, “God is Love.”

Like John Paul II’s, Benedict XVI’s pontificate will be Christ-centered. Pope Benedict may stress the “scandal” of the Incarnation — the “stumbling block” and “folly” that some find in the claim that the Creator God entered the world in the person of his Son, so that the Son, through his obedient death, might reconcile the world to Love itself. Yet Pope Benedict will also insist that this scandal, which has challenged humankind since St. Paul posed it to the Corinthians, is not a scandal against reason; the mystery of the Incarnation, and the scandal of the Cross to which the Incarnation inexorably points (as old Simeon will remind Mary on Candlemas), is beyond reason. It is not irrational; but the “reason” within the mystery and the scandal can only be grasped in an act of love.

Which is, after all, the Christian meaning of “mystery.” The mysteries of the faith are not puzzles to be solved, in the manner of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. The “mysteries” (as the early Church Fathers called the truths into which the newly-baptized were initiated) are truths beyond reason — like the truth of Christ’s real presence in the Holy Eucharist. And beyond reason is not, as some 21st century thinkers insist, the realm of the irrational; beyond reason, although not against reason, is the realm of love, in which, as St. Paul reminded those boisterous Corinthians, we know even as we are known.

That is the truth on which John Paul II staked his life. That is why every encounter of his papacy, from meetings with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to an audience for the Italian Union of Hairdressers, was an expression of his commitment to invite everyone to St. Paul’s “more excellent way:” the way of divine love — a love of exaggerated infinity. That’s what I remember about John Paul II at Christmas. That’s the great message he took to the world — as his worthy successor now does in his turn, and in his distinctive way.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”