In mid-January the HBO network unveiled a new series titled The Young Pope, a ludicrous fiction imagining how a brash young American ascending to the pontifical office and taking the name Pius XIII might shake things up. Our attention is better directed to the actual history of how new popes have had a major impact on the Catholic Church and the world from Saint John XXIII to Saint John Paul II to Pope Francis.
Strongest in terms of geopolitical repercussions was undoubtedly the election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the chair of St. Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, the first pope from a Communist country in the Soviet orbit. The story of these events is told in an excellent new documentary, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism (https://jp2film.com/), written and directed by David Naglieri and narrated by Jim Caviezel, best known for portraying Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Available on DVD, it was first broadcast last year on PBS in the United States and the Salt and Light channel in Canada.
The film opens with two contrasting messages. The first is Stalin’s famous retort: “The pope? How many divisions does he have?” The second is from John Paul II: “Darkness can only be scattered by light, hatred can only be conquered by love.” Those words still resonate today, and as we know, they invoked the Spirit that helped overcome the armed might of a totalitarian empire. As observed by executive producer Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus: “By his actions and his words, John Paul II inspired a thirst for freedom that would evolve into the Solidarity Movement. Without his spiritual support, Solidarity’s success would not have been possible, and without Solidarity, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Revolution of ’89 would never have happened.”
Drawing on archival materials and interviews, Karol Wojtyla’s personal story is presented in the historical context of the struggles of the Polish nation. Born in 1920 he was steeped in a Polish culture that found affirmation through its religious identity. As his biographer George Wiegel puts it, “the Catholic Church was the safe deposit box of Polish culture.” He grew up with a deep faith that was tested as a young man during the Second World War when Poland suffered atrocities at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin. He worked as a manual labourer and became a secret seminarian in an underground university. The result of Stalin becoming a western ally in the defeat of Nazi Germany was that Eastern Europe was effectively conceded to the Soviet sphere. Wojtyla entered the priesthood at a time when the new Communist authorities sought to control Polish society and destroy the influence of religion.
Father Wojtyla, who had a background in literature and the theatre, found ways to resist this suffocating regime. The young were a focus of his ministry which sought to create “zones of freedom” outside of Communist ideology. As he rose through the ranks of the church — ultimately becoming archbishop of Krakow in 1964 and a cardinal in 1967 — the totalitarian state tried in vain to manipulate and undermine him. While the Vatican pursued a somewhat cautious diplomacy with the USSR in order to protect the church, his example was a powerful symbol of internal resistance.
Cardinal Wojtyla’s election as pope had an immediate “electric effect,” nowhere more so than in his native Poland. His nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979, marking a major religious anniversary, had an extraordinary impact in showing how the seemingly all-powerful Communist system could be contested by a spiritual power. Pope John Paul II urged the huge crowds to not be afraid and prayed for the Spirit to descend on the land. He had a strong affinity for working people and his papacy provided crucial impetus for the Solidarity movement that arose in 1980. One of his encyclicals proclaimed the rights and dignity of human labour — calling attention to the repression in the supposed workers’ state (though it could also be seen as challenging Reaganite free-market ideology).
The 1980s proved to be a deeply troubled and dangerous time in Poland, much of it under martial law and the threat of a Soviet invasion. Moscow was also suspected of having a hand in the 1981 attempted assassination of the pope. That did not stop John Paul II from making two more important visits, in 1983 when he insisted on meeting with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, and in 1987 when his presence revived the Solidarity movement from a low ebb.
Of course there were other factors during these years of upheavals that brought the Cold War to an end and caused the Soviet empire to implode. The relationship between American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom met with the pope, was a crucial element in a largely peaceful transition. Yet America’s military prowess wasn’t what turned the tide and Gorbachev’s reform attempts could not save a system that was fundamentally broken. The film perhaps too briefly passes over Gorbachev’s role and events in Russia. Still, as Gorbachev himself acknowledged: “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.” Historians agree.
To the documentary’s credit, it also comments on John Paul II’s continuing prophetic voice in the post-Communist period in which he insisted that freedom must not fall prey to the temptations of secularism and consumerism but must be anchored in the moral foundations of a Christian Europe that upholds the dignity of the human person. The struggle is not over in which the force of faith has a central role to play, as was seen in Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan uprising that has been called a “revolution of dignity.”
Apart from big awards contenders, the new year tends to offer slim pickings at the multiplex. Here are several worth a visit. Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures tells the little-known story of the African American women, employees of the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA), who played an important role in America’s emerging space program during the Kennedy era of the early 1960s when the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first man to orbit the earth touched off a Cold War space race.
The narrative is anchored in a trio of strong performances by Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan who did the unacknowledged and uncompensated work of a supervisor; Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; and Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, a math genius whose calculations had a key role in John Glenn’s first American earth orbit on the Friendship 7 mission in 1962. (Glenn died in December at the age of 95.)
The women were part of a group responsible for the manual mathematical work required to back up the nearly all-male white-shirt-and-ties Space Group and its demanding boss Al Harrison played by Kevin Costner. Literally referred to as “coloured computers,” they worked in Virginia, a segregation state in which they faced daily discrimination and prejudice including inside NASA. That could have absurd results which the movie uses to melodramatic effect. It was no laughing matter, however, as the women’s persistence and strength of character makes clear. Ms. Vaughan saved jobs by anticipating the arrival of IBM mainframe computers. Ms. Jackson became NASA’s first female and African-American engineer. Ms. Johnson’s seminal contributions spanned decades and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Their story deserves the overdue recognition (it has been nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, and Best Adapted Screenplay; as well, the film won the SAG cast award on Jan. 29). As Monáe puts it, “finally we’re going to have some true, new American heroes that just so happen to be black women.” As a historical footnote, a new book by Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, tells how in the late 19th century another group of remarkable women — also called “computers” — were employed at Harvard College to do mathematical work in support of astrophysical observations.
J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a partly Canadian-financed U.S./Spain co-production, centres on a troubled 12-year-old British boy, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother, Lizzie (Star Wars heroine Felicity Jones), is fighting terminal illness. The screenplay by Patrick Ness adapts his eponymous 2011 novel inspired by an idea from author Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer in 2004.
Conor is gripped by a fear of loss. He doesn’t want to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his father (Toby Kebbell) who now lives in Los Angeles and has another family. Bullied at school and emotionally conflicted over his mother’s condition, he has horrible nightmares when one night at 12:07 a.m. — a time with recurring significance — he is visited by an arboreal monster with fiery eyes emerging from an ancient Yew tree in a churchyard. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, will tell him three stories before forcing him to confront the truth of his own story. The moral of these tales is complex, even perverse, and in the throes of several of them Conor lashes out in a rage against circumstances that seem unfair. Yet through the anger, fears and tears of Conor’s visions, it is a mother’s enduring love that calms the storm.
MacDougall, who lost his own mother a year before filming began, is remarkable in the role. The animation and digital effects are a marvel. All told, this deeply moving story is highly recommended for family viewing.