VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II’s latest health scare may have upstaged the release of his new book, but the work may serve to amplify a voice that has, at least temporarily, been silenced by illness.

Just two days before the Pope’s second hospitalization in a month, the Vatican launched Memory and Identity: Conversations between Millenniums, which papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls called a biography of his “inner being” and a “theology of history.”

Navarro-Valls explained at a press conference Feb. 22 that the new book, to be published in 14 languages, was the result of conversations the Pope had in 1993 with two Polish philosopher friends, Father Jozef Tischner and Krzysztof Michalski, in the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence. The Pope made some changes and additions to the material recorded at that time.

According to Michalski, the main topic of their conversations was Pope John Paul’s “experiences with Nazism (during World War II) and communism after the war, and how those experiences influenced his perspective on the world, his understanding as Pope in his public life and in his understanding of his public role.”

The session recorded was one of eight meetings at the residence, organized by Michalski who, together with the late Father Tischner, founded the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, an organization which aims to bring together academics and intellectuals from Eastern and Western Europe.

Navarro-Valls said Pope John Paul had the conversations recorded “to reflect, to perceive the dimensions of the historical events, and to go to the root” of the issues.

“A lot of [the topics discussed] are still relevant, but not as much as they were a few years ago,” Michalski said. “Things had to be put in context, and that’s why the book is different to our conversations.”
Navarro-Valls explained that in the book, John Paul “does not reflect on cosmic evil, that is, on catastrophes and tragedies, but on the evil that derives from human behavior.”

He added, “It could be said that this is a book about the theology of history. The Pope does not wish to guess at or define the place that events occupy in the divine plan, or to decipher the ways of Providence. When he writes about the ‘ideologies of evil’ — Nazism and communism — he explores their roots and the regimes that resulted.”

The demise of those evils, the Pope writes, “revealed the utter absurdity of the large-scale violence that formed part of the history and practice of those systems.”

He asks, “Will we be able to learn from the dramatic lessons of history? Or will we be prey once more to the passions at work in the human spirit, yielding yet again to the evil promptings of violence?”

‘Ideology of Evil’

The book contains forceful passages against same-sex “marriage,” which John Paul calls part of an “insidious and hidden ideology of evil [that] attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

The Holy Father also reflects on the current scourge of world terrorism and refers to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other recent atrocities.

“Rereading the transcripts of the conversation (of 1993),” he writes, “I note that expressions of violence have decreased considerably since the 1970s, yet so-called ‘networks of terror’ have spread throughout the world and constitute a constant threat to the lives of millions of innocents. Where will these new eruptions of violence lead us?” the Pope asks.

He also undertakes a theological and philosophical reflection about how the presence of evil often ends up being an invitation to good.

“Redemption is ongoing,” he explains. “Where evil grows, there the hope for good also grows. In our times, evil has grown disproportionately, operating through perverted systems that have practiced violence and elimination on a vast scale.”

Some Jewish groups have been offended at references in the book that allegedly equate the Holocaust with abortion. However, at the book launch’s press conference, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that “the Pope recalls men’s permanent temptation and tells us that we are not immune to the destruction of human life.” The comparison, he said, “is foreign to the book.”

The Pope writes that the fall of the Nazi and communist regimes put an end to the forms of extermination in the countries concerned.

“However, there remains the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn,” he stresses. “And in this case, that extermination is decreed by democratically-elected parliaments, which invoke the notion of civil progress for society and all humanity.”

Assassination Attempt

John Paul II also issues a critique of philosophies that make freedom an absolute.

“Appeal is made today to freedom alone,” he explains. “It is often said: What matters is to be free, released from all constraint and limitation, so as to operate according to private judgment, which in reality is often pure whim. This much is clear: Such liberalism can only be described as primitive. Its influence, however, is potentially devastating.”

At the end of the book, the Holy Father recounts with his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the assassination attempt on his life in 1981.

Archbishop Dziwisz remembers the Pope losing consciousness on his journey to hospital. “A few more minutes, some obstruction along the way, and it would have been too late.”

Both could see the hand of God in the Pope’s survival. “It was all a testimony to divine grace,” says John Paul. “Mehmet Ali Agca (the would-be assassin) knew how to shoot and he certainly shot to kill. Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting the bullet.”

John Paul recounts his meeting with Agca in prison in 1983, and described how his inability to kill him had made Agca so perplexed that it had led him to religion.

“He probably sensed … there was a higher power. He then began to look for it. I hope and pray that he found it.”

Agca, currently incarcerated in a Turkish prison for murder and robbery, recently sent messages of good will to the Pope during his first hospitalization in early February.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.