WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the spring of 1978, I was in Rome on a glorious sunny morning, and after my matutinal coffee I strolled up the Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter's for a visit. As I recorded in "The Conservative Crack-Up" over a decade later, it was a time of "idiot whirl." Suggestive of the whirl, that pert ignoramus, Jimmy Carter, was dithering through the last years of his idiot presidency. Inflation was singeing the dollars in our pockets. Industries were failing. America was derided around the world. There were new fanatics everywhere and crazy suicidal cults. The Rev. Jim Jones had just led 900 or so of his faithful to their poisonings.
After this pope and all the history made since the late 1970s by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their confused Marxist-Leninist accomplice, Mikhail Gorbachev, the world is a saner place, albeit still troubled. The day Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, Richard Nixon, still in disgrace, was visiting London. When informed of the Polish cardinal's surprising election, Nixon speculated to members of Parliament in the House of Commons that here might be the "spark" to ignite the forces of freedom against Soviet domination throughout what was then called Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul did that and much more, as every obituary has affirmed.
He revived the spiritual vigor of his Church, reinvigorated ecumenism, acknowledged Christianity's debt to the Jews and the wrongs committed against them, and raised the dignity of human life for all to contemplate. Even in his last weeks, he gave the suffering of the very old meaning. He was a great proponent of freedom, but he insisted it was meaningless unless it pursued the virtues. He was, after all, at bottom an Aristotelian and Thomistic philosopher. He championed reason. John Paul II has been the greatest pope of the last 500 years, as well as one of the great political figures of the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and of course Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, now have a silver-haired man of God in their ranks.
Most of this has been dilated upon during the worldwide spectacle of the pope's death, a spectacle unlike anything that might have been anticipated, we are told. His intellect, goodness, and political acumen have all been remarked on, but few have noted its provenance. Unlike any of the other historic figures of the century, the pope was a mystic. Prayer and contemplation of God was the source of all he did in life.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1940 the 20-year-old Wojtyla came under the spiritual influence of a deeply religious middle-aged layman, Jan Tyranowski, who presided over something called the "Living Rosary." It consisted of groups of 15 or so young men devoted to prayer and contemplation. From this experience, Wojtyla gained his lifelong interest in the mysticism of the Carmelite order and the teachings of the 16th century Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross. While the Nazis prowled Poland, Wojtyla meditated and deepened his understanding of St. John's mystical communion with God. All the rest of his life, no matter the demands the world placed on him, his foremost concern was his own communion with God.
Reviewing that memorable 1978 morn in Rome as I wrote it up in "The Conservative Crack-Up," I noticed that nowhere in the book did I mention John Paul II. I was writing about the condition of conservatism in the late 20th century, yet somehow I missed the pope. After the huge send-off the world has given him, it will be difficult to repeat that omission.