Book: Pope’s Memory & Identity

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John Paul II was also admired for being an outspoken, activist Pope who was willing to express his opposition to racism and to apologize for the role of the Church during the Holocaust. The flip side is that the Pope lost some credibility for not taking a tough enough stance on pedophile priests and for perpetuating medieval Church stances on birth control and homosexuality.

Whether by coincidence or by divine intervention, it's fitting that this book, Memory and Identity, by Pope John Paul II would be published just as he was passing away. In Memory and Identity, the pontiff pontificated primarily on political and philosophical issues in his capacity as the revered head of the Catholic Church.

With  a reign that began in October of 1978 until his demise in 2005, Pope John Paul II was one of the world's most influential world leaders, as he played a pivotal role in the downfall of Communism. He was also admired for being an outspoken, activist Pope who was willing to express his opposition to racism and to apologize for the role of the Church during the Holocaust.

The flip side is that the Pope lost some credibility for not taking a tough enough stance on pedophile priests and for perpetuating medieval Church stances on birth control and homosexuality. When I attended a Catholic school many moons ago, it was instilled in me that a Pope could not err in matters of faith or morals. As I thus realize that his flock  considers his pearls of wisdom the word of God, I am inclined to think that any critique of this text would be classified  as heresy. Nonetheless, I would hope that certain circles within the flock could still be open to an honest appraisal of Memory and Identity. Relying on a question and answer format, John Paul weighs in at length on a number of subjects, some of which are abstract, like "Ideologies of Evil," "The Mystery of Mercy" and "Redemption." Others are more concrete, such as those exploring, "The Relationship of Church and State" and "European History." When discussing religious matters, the Papal language is very dry, similar in tone to hearing an uninspired cleric drone on during an impersonal, Sunday morning sermon. You may as well be reading the scriptures or mouthing prayers. Those entries are less likely to engage the reader intellectually than the ones where he tackles social issues.

For instance, in Chapter 22, "Modern Democracy," he warns the world not to be euphoric over the collapse of communism, for pathological forms of democracy are yet possible. Here he reminds us that, "It was a regularly elected parliament that consented to Hitler's rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. And the same Reichstag, by delegating full powers to Hitler, paved the way for his policy of invading Europe, for the establishment of concentration camps, and for the implementation of the so-called 'final solution' to the Jewish question."

So, we see that such a duly-elected "ochlocracy," as he dubs it, can be just as tyrannical as any other oppressive form of government. While I felt illumined by some of John Paul's insights on man's inhumanity to man, I was most deeply touched by his emotional Epilogue, where he recalls his 1983 meeting with Mehmet Ali Agca, the Muslim who had tried to assassinate him with an automatic pistol just two years earlier. Although severely wounded in the attack, a precursor of the rise of radical Islam, the Pope forgave the penitent hit man who was contrite and curious about Christianity.

Ultimately, Agca was pardoned by the Italian government who shipped him back to Turkey –where he is now imprisoned – rather than deal with escalating threats from supporters of the fundamentalist movement. It takes a better man than I to support the release from prison of a person who unloaded a weapon in my direction at point blank range with murder in mind. It is that special quality, which enables me to recommend Memory and Identity.

For if, as its recently-departed author suggests, some higher power guided the bullets to ensure that no one perished in packed St. Peter's Square that fateful day, perhaps another hand played a role in preparing these final remarks which now bring down the curtain on John Paul II’s historic papacy.

Memory And Identity is published by Rizzoli International Publications (192 pp.)
Hardcover, $19.95 ISBN: 0-8478-2761-5. For more reports please click on “subscribe� on the homepage to receive the newsstand edition of The Black Star News or call (212) 481-7745.

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