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The five minutes of Pope John Paul II

Ariel Dorfman
7 April 2005

When I remember Pope John Paul II, what I highlight above all are five brief minutes. Out of a career so vast that it included his decisive role in bringing down the Berlin wall, those prayers of his – the first by a pope – in a synagogue and a mosque and a Lutheran church, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his clampdown on the more progressive forces in his institution, those five minutes constitute my way of summarising somehow the charisma and contradictions of his long reign. Minutes which transpire in early April of 1987, when he meets, almost exactly eighteen years before his death, 100,000 young Chileans in the national stadium of a Santiago where General Augusto Pinochet still rules supremely, malevolently.

Also in openDemocracy on the Catholic church and democracy:

Neal Ascherson, “Pope John Paul II and democracy”

Austen Ivereigh, “Through the Vatican white smoke”

Michael Walsh, “Cutting the Vatican down to size”

Laura Greenhalgh, “Cardinal Arns of Brazil on Pope John Paul II, the Vatican and the poor”

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I was in exile at that point, but I have heard from many sources about the dialogue that John Paul II engaged in with those buoyant and fervent young men, and young women, eager to express themselves in a land that would not listen to them nor care for their dreams.

The message of peace that the pope transmitted to Chile – in spite of his being photographed next to our dictator in the balcony of the presidential palace – was ardently embraced by the youth of my country. So, when John Paul II asked them, in Spanish, if they renounced the demons of avarice and greed, there was a resounding yes, and when he demanded if they were ready to renounce the demons of violence, the yes was even louder. And then, the supreme pontiff got carried away, may have forgotten himself or who he was dealing with, how those youngsters had survived the years of tyranny. He asked that gathering of adolescents if they were ready to renounce the demons of sex – and there was no hesitation inside the genitals and heartbeat of those 100,000 bodies under the Andes, there was no hesitation in the 100,000 throats that shouted back: no!

Not strange, that unanimous response. They had no jobs, their education was twisted, they had been brought up in fear, the public space belonged to men in uniform who were more than willing to torment anyone who rebelled – and the one intimate zone these teenagers had conquered was love-making, the possibility of freely expressing to one another in the darkness, whispering to each other, the song of liberty their muscles and juices were not prepared to relinquish or surrender to anyone, not their elders, not their teachers, not their government and not even to the pope.

There, in those mere five minutes, are the two sides of one pope, the central paradox of his existence. The same voice that systematically rejected the violence that threatens to engulf us, who deplored the insatiable hunger for profits that devours the poor, who recalled to the powerful that they were required to be the guardians of the birds and the weak and the forgotten and the disabled, yes, that voice also came from inside a man who was unable to deal with anything regarding sexuality, unable to face the many desires which flow gloriously, darkly, from below the waist. The very pope who defended the right of us all to choose our own leaders democratically (though he himself was authoritarian inside his own church, particularly in Latin America, where he severely restrained the theology of liberation), could not understand that democracy also means our right to select how we are to love and reproduce.

Ariel Dorfman’s writing on openDemocracy includes:

“Pablo Picasso has words for Colin Powell from the other side of death” (February 2003)

“Hymn for the Unsung” (March 2003)

It is a pity, therefore, that the pope had been told – and believed – that he was infallible. He might have learned something from those 100,000 young men and women as ardent in their love for God as they were for the skin and hands and lips of one another. He might have learned to see himself in the mirror of their answers, their yes and their no, their playfulness and their sense of humour, their thanks to him for reminding them of the need for peace and community, their willingness to fight for freedom, their certainty that they could not accept his proposal that sex is a demon and the body should be lonely. He might have learned to see himself in their imperfect mirror of love as they greeted him and bade him farewell under the shadow of the Andes.

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