“I came to cast fire upon earth; and would that it were already kindled!”
In order to mark the 15th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s election to the Papacy, Italian Radio and Television commissioned Vittorio Messori to conduct a live television interview with the Pope. It must have seemed a good idea at the time. Vittorio Messori is the author of a number of books and articles; but outside Italy, he is best known for the Ratzinger Report, a very readable account of a series of conversations with Cardinal Ratzinger. When that book appeared, some of the people who admired Cardinal Ratzinger most expressed misgivings about his taking part in such a project. No doubt the opinions of the man entrusted with safeguarding moral and doctrinal orthodoxy within the Catholic Church were matters of keen interest to people who read journalism, but was it really wise for the Head of the Holy Office to share his private thoughts with the world? He was the spokesman for a tradition. Did not the very format of an interview, with its emphasis on personality, encourage the false notion that his pronouncements somehow depended on his own background and personal idiosyncrasies? Nevertheless, the book was full of good things, and it deserved to be an international best-seller.
Ten years later, it would certainly have been a coup if Signor Messori had been able to repeat his success by interviewing not a distinguished Curial Cardinal, but the Pope himself. At first, everything seemed to favor the project. Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Vails, the Vatican Press Secretary and Opus Dei notable, was said to be one of its staunchest supporters. Admittedly, the program would not be quite what it seemed. Questions were prepared and sent to the Pope, so that he would have an opportunity to consider what he would say before the live interview took place.
In the end, however, there was no interview. According to Messori’s own somewhat vague explanation, the Pope’s “many obligations” prevented his participation in the interview. It looks as though someone had second thoughts about the television program. At this point, an alternative arrangement was suggested. Unable or unwilling to respond to the journalist in person, the Pope offered to send him written answers to his questions, answers which he would write during the brief moments when he was free from the obligations of what must truly be a busy schedule. Crossing the Threshold of Hope is the record of the Pope’s answers to the journalist’s questions, the written word substituted for the television word.
Everything disappointing about the book can be blamed on what it owes to the format of the failed TV program. The questions, for the most part, are unctuous and vague, and it is difficult to discover any logical order to the topics that they raise. Beginning with questions about the meaning of the Papacy and some standard questions about proofs for the existence of God, the centrality of salvation, and the meaning of evil, the questions then veer towards such topics as “Why are there so many religions?” and the Pope’s views about Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism, only to end, in the final and most interesting part of the book, with a hodgepodge of questions about everything from the fall of communism to the reality of hell.
From the nature of the book, there is of course no opportunity to develop a line of thought beyond the original answers that the Pope provides, since there are no follow-up questions. On the other hand, in the preface, Messori admits to having added questions to the final text of the book. Since these additional questions are never identified, the reader can only guess whether a particular question that the Pope seems to be answering is one that he has ever been asked. In a sense, it does not really matter. Much of what is best about the book comes from the Pope’s efforts to transcend the format imposed on him by the stilted questions. Like the university lecturer he once was, he will correct a clumsy question or challenge the assumptions on which a question is based, or even anticipate the sort of question that a slow student might not have the courage to ask. It is appropriate, therefore, that some of the banal questions he answers should turn out never to have been asked. Trying to guess which ones they are adds an element of fun to an interview that, understandably, is not notable for its humor.
But if there is little humor in this book, there is a good deal of cheerfulness. One of the themes running through the Pope’s reflections, like a golden thread, is a strong affirmation of the reality of joy. He describes his first Encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis (1978) as a hymn of joy for the fact that man has been redeemed through Christ; and he affirms the essential “joy of creation” that is completed by “the joy of salvation.” Commenting on the international youth rallies that have been a distinctive feature of his pontificate, he sees a religious significance in the joie de vivre of the young, because their happiness reflects “something of the original joy Cod had in creating man.” Even the sad experience of living under Nazi and Communist rule has done little to diminish the 75-year-old Pontiff’s good spirits. Like Chesterton, he seems consumed by what the great English writer called “a fury for life.” Yet there are also hints that the Pope knows the meaning of personal betrayal. At least, that would seem to be the implication of his simple and almost childlike confession of his faith in the One “who walks alongside each person as a Friend—the only Friend who will not disappoint him, on whom he can always count.” But cheerfulness keeps on breaking through. Prayer, he explains, is not primarily a matter of discipline and difficulty; it is rather the most effective way of making God present in our lives. In answer to a question about the apparent silence of God, he refuses to be gloomy, pointing out that God has already said everything through the revelation of the Incarnate Word, and that there is, in any case, an ongoing communication that takes place in the lives of all believing people: the actions of the sacraments are, after all, the actions of Christ. And then, as a sort of casual aside, he points out the corollary of this cheerful sacramental theology, by summarizing the entire history of the 20th century as an unsuccessful attempt to stifle the voice of God.
One of the more curious features of the book is the Pope’s ambivalent attitude toward the Western world. He refers to the struggle against God in the West, and he asserts that, for three centuries, the life and thought of the West has been characterized by the “systematic elimination of God.” Even the Marxist collectivism under which he and his people suffered such hardship is dismissed contemptuously as being no more than a “cheap version” of this same anti-religious plan. More than that, he sees Western consumerism as a force more powerful than communism in undermining religious faith and traditional morality. At the same time, in spite of his many references to the need to evangelize the consumerist society of the West, he is critical of social movements that attempt to undertake this task: in his view, those who are engaged in an intense dialogue with contemporary culture are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by it, and, in any case, since individual holiness is the key to all effective action, no social action has any value which does not proceed from prayer. There is scarcely a word about strategies for the evangelization of contemporary culture. On this question, as on all others, his thinking remains uncompromisingly supernatural. In a passage of great eloquence, he says that every civilization, including Western civilization, is saved only by its hidden saints, and he then proudly lists the victims of the Nazi death camps and communist gulags as the heroes of our century. Interestingly, in his roll-call of martyrs, he is careful to include the forgotten martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.
But a difficulty remains which the book never precisely addresses. According to the Pope, the interior life of prayer is the key to everything good both in the life of the individual and society. The emphasis is firmly on individual responsibility and individual discipline. Yet the Pope’s sacramental theology also implies something quite different. The sacramental principle, after all, is communitarian, and the sanctity of the individual must, therefore, ultimately depend on the health of the community that is supposed to support the individual’s efforts to be good. If there are “structures of sin” that perpetuate and magnify individual evil, there are also structures of virtue that make it easier for people to lead good lives. In spite of the dangers of social action, the evangelization of culture must somehow take place and strategies for such an evangelization require more than a call for individual holiness. If the consumerist culture of the West possesses a terrible power to undermine religious faith, then there is an urgent need to challenge and transform that culture. The Pope’s approving references to Pope Paul VI’s writing on this subject make it clear that he regards the matter as critical. It is disappointing that in this book he is never given an opportunity to develop his ideas on the subject.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of this book is its epigrammatic quality. What it lacks in overall design, it more than compensates for in the power of its individual comments. It is a case of the parts being more impressive than the whole. The small sayings are the memorable ones, and there are enough of them to form a book of aphorisms. Long after the reader has forgotten the particular points which the Pope makes about the thinking of Descartes and Kant, he is likely to remember the Pope’s brisk and Protestant-sounding comment that the title “Christian” has far greater significance than the title “bishop,” even if the subject is the Bishop of Rome; and that the title “Vicar of Christ” is one that should be applied to every Christian. Concerning the Incarnation of Christ and the “closeness” of God to human life that this Mystery implies, he says: “Man was no longer able to tolerate such closeness, and then the protests began. This great protest has precise names—first it is called the Synagogue, and then Islam,” Concerning the insensitivity to the “Last Things” promoted by secularism, he suggests that the “hells on earth” created in the 20th century have contributed to this insensitivity: “Can man possibly expect anything worse from this world, an even greater amount of humiliation and contempt? In a word, hell? . . . Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?”
Finally, something should be said about the attractive quality of the book as a physical object. Beautifully and clearly printed on heavy paper, it is a delight to read. Even its compact size is right: larger than a paperback, but still small enough to hold easily, and just the right size to take with you on a journey. The publisher and printer deserve credit for their work. The translation is more difficult to judge. Certainly the Italian version has been rendered into smooth and idiomatic English. Nevertheless, it is disconcerting to learn that the reader is two stages removed from the original text, which was written in Polish. For a project of this importance, it should have been possible to find someone competent to translate the book directly from that language. If the Italian publishers could find such a person, why couldn’t Alfred A. Knopf? In the television interview that never happened and that would never have been remembered if it had taken place, the failure to find the exact words would scarcely have mattered; but, in a noble book that will last, the words ought to be exactly right.
[Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by His Holiness John Paul II (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 229 pp., $20.00]