22 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 34

An old man of 83 versus an evil world


He sits, writing, thinking, mainly praying, in his bare lonely silent little apartment. Far below him is Bernini's majestic piazza, which can hold, and sometimes does, a million people, with its flanking colonnades that give a monumental dignity to the vast space they have enclosed for the best part of four centuries. To his right is the sheer enormity of St Peter's, on which Bramante and Michelangelo and a dozen other master architects, great men in their day, laboured and intrigued, built, pulled down and rebuilt, over 200 years and more, and whose colossal and glittering interior Bernini and scores of acolytes and men of art and science made into a palace of sombre delights and scintillating illusions. All around him lies the Eternal City, eternal in its vices and profligacies, in its overwhelming love of money and its still more brutal capacity for spending it, a world of luxury and lust, display and shameless effrontery, of the hella figure and the malocchio, but also of countless men and women of humble virtue and devoted service, penniless, often hungry and barefoot, a rosary warm in a calloused hand and worn from use, and that curious light in their eyes which radiates from a pure heart within. Rome is heaven, and it is hell — and purgatory too — and the old man high in the Vatican Palace watches it all, as he watches the entire world, grieving at its monstrous sins, rejoicing at the sacrifices of the few, and praying earnestly to God to spare His wrath a little longer.

The Pope is now in his mid-eighties and has been on the throne of St Peter a quarter of a century. I remember well the day he was elected, for! have attended as a journalist every conclave since the war. Few then had heard his name, fewer still could pronounce it. But it was not long before the world became aware that a new and powerful force was at work among the moral chaos and confused values of humanity. From suffering and martyred Poland, butchered and tortured by Nazi paganism, starved, ransacked and bled almost to death by the Soviet Antichrist, had come a man of vigour and intellectual power and, still more, of absolute moral certitudes and unflinching courage in proclaiming them, to teach humanity the ancient distinctions between right and wrong, and good and evil. No equivocation. No sophistry or hair-splitting. No superficially well-meaning but at bottom dirty and dishonourable compromises to keep the shabby show on the road. But always the same message: this is right; that is wrong. There are no grey areas. In his numerous encyclicals and almost weekly pronouncements, above all in the weighty catechism of the faith he caused to be compiled and almost every word of which he wrote himself, the heart and soul, the principles and details of the Catholic faith, put together and expanded over two millennia, are set forth in words of steel and granite incapable of dispute, which none can misunderstand. On the sins of the flesh and the spirit, on abortion and homosexuality, on divorce and euthanasia, on all the issues over which lesser Churches prevaricate and emit clouds of gaseous confusion, the Pope blows the clear trumpet of absolute certainty, so that the very dead in their tombs hear and tremble.

I realised early on that we had been given by the merciful bounty of the Holy Spirit a pope of exceptional power and truth. Twenty years ago I wrote a little book, Pope John-Paul II and the Restoration of Catholicism, showing how he was setting about repairing the damage inflicted on the unity and solidarity of the Church by his immediate predecessors, especially that clever fool and honourable idiot Pope Paul VI. I see no reason to change a single word of what I wrote then, except perhaps to note the almost miraculous way in which he has grown in stature. Not physically but spiritually, in almost palpable form, so that in his presence you feel the radiation of goodness, the warmth of charity and faith, and the sweeping, uplifting force of hope. I felt this most palpably when from the rafters of Canterbury cathedral I watched him pay homage to the spirit of martyrdom at the shrine of St Thomas Becket, and, amid a great crowd of notables, project a powerful inner light which did not exactly diminish them but made them seem a pleiad of dim stars round a radiant supernova. One of my most precious possessions is a photograph, taken by Ossovatore Romana, of me presenting the Pope with a copy of my History of Christianity in its Polish translation. I felt then, and still feel in retrospect, that I was in the presence of sanctity personified: a true Vicar of Christ.

It does not at all surprise me that many people, including many Catholics, hate this holy man. For he stands, fair and square, against all the conventional and fashionable values of the world in which we live. To begin with, he is very old. In our world we regard the old, increasingly, as a nuisance. In France, they compulsorily retire healthy and active men and women of 55. I daresay we will soon come to that here. A worker of 65, let alone 70, albeit at the top of his intellectual powers, is treated as professionally senile. The idea that wisdom comes with maturity and often increases with great age is treated as preposterous. The Pope moves slowly; he suffers from Parkinson's; sometimes he needs to rest during a long service. But in the ancient temple of his mind reside wisdom and forbearance, experience and charity, the humility of those who have seen it all and the vision of an ancient of days. The fact that the largest Church on earth is ruled by a man of 83 is, to me, a source of huge satisfaction.

And, perhaps because he is so old, the Pope values life in a way most people have forgotten. To slaughter unborn babies, often in ways which we know to be cruel and horrific, may be convenient to others, socially desirable, a saving to the state, a benefit to the community, politically popular and morally acceptable to many who call themselves Christians. To the Pope it is murder: murder most foul because committed on the innocent and defenceless by professional people who have sworn solemn oaths to save life. The fact that it is committed on a colossal scale, so that the number of unborn infants slaughtered and burnt in the ovens already exceeds the casualties of both world wars, Hitler's holocaust and the victims of those twin monsters Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, makes the agony of contemplating this organic sin perhaps the worst burden the Pope has to bear.

But there are many others. He has called our prevailing mode in the world 'the culture of Death'. Everywhere we look, vast weapons of destruction are being acquired, and others used. Entire states and religious movements are being organised to kill not in self-defence or of sheer necessity but as a way of life. Euthanasia makes steady strides. To all these, the Pope, in his childlike wisdom and holy innocence, in his boundless confidence in the goodness of almighty God and the ultimate triumph of the Spirit, upholds the culture of Life. They say he is a dying man, but I have a feeling he will be teaching us the Way, the Truth and the Life for some time yet.