A promise to Pope John Paul II

On the evening of Dec. 15, 2004, I had dinner in the papal apartment with Pope John Paul II and several of his aides. Although his health had been deteriorating steadily for years, the pope was in good form that night, his sense of humor intact and sharp. Knowing that he liked large photo albums, I gave him a volume on national parks of the United States as a Christmas present. When an aide opened the book to Rocky Mountain National Park, the pope put on as much of a smile as his Parkinson’s disease would permit and said, “Denver: World Youth Day 1993! The bishops of the United States said it couldn’t be done. I proved them wrong!” We all laughed as John Paul flipped through the pages; in his mind’s eye, he was back hiking in the Rockies.

The conversation over dinner was wide-ranging, and at one point, after the usual papal kidding about my having written “a very big book,” John Paul asked about the international reception of “Witness to Hope,” his biography, which I had published five years earlier. He was particularly happy when I told him that a Chinese edition was in the works, as he knew he would never get to that vast land himself. As that part of the conversation was winding down, I looked across the table and, referring to the fact that “Witness to Hope had only taken the John Paul II story up to early 1999, I made the pope a promise: “Holy Father,” I said, “if you don’t bury me, I want you to know that I’ll finish your story.”

It was the last time we saw each other, this side of the Kingdom of God.

“The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy,” which was published by Doubleday on Sept. 14, is the fulfillment of the promise I made to John Paul during our last evening together.

In addition to revisiting Karol Wojtyla’s epic battle with communism through the prism of previously classified and top-secret communist files, given to me by Polish researchers, the book offers  a detailed account of the drama of the pope’s last six years: the Great Jubilee of 2000 and his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land; Sept. 11, and the pope’s efforts to frustrate Osama bin Laden’s insistence that his war with the West was a religious crusade; the Long Lent of 2002, when the Church in America grappled with the twin crises of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance; John Paul’s ongoing efforts to build bridges of dialogue and reconciliation with the Churches of the Christian East; his struggle with illness, which brought him into at least one “dark night” spiritually;  and his heroic last months, in which his priestly death became, metaphorically, his last encyclical. “The End and the Beginning concludes with a lengthy evaluation of Karol Wojtyla, the man, and John Paul II, the pope. There, I’m able to tell some stories not previously on the public record, while assessing all that went right, and the things that went wrong, in one of history’s most significant pontificates.

The story of Wojtyla vs. communism in “The End and the Beginningis by no means simply a reprise of “Witness to Hope; on the contrary, the Polish, East German, Soviet and Hungarian secret police and foreign ministry files I obtained from Polish colleagues shed new, and often dramatic, light on the communist effort to destroy John Paul’s work and his reputation, as well as on communist efforts to penetrate the Leonine Wall and recruit collaborators in the Vatican. In a world quickly forgetting what the Cold War was about, these once-secret classified documents are a powerful reminder that, as John Paul’s longtime secretary once put it to me, “It was ‘we and they,’ ‘us and them,’ all the time.” And they were not scrupulous about playing the hardest of hardball.

John Paul II was the great Christian witness of this era. Telling his story in full has been the privilege of a lifetime.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.