The news in Rome remains anything but new. Labor unrest continues and public services are affected in a wave of general strikes over the soaring cost of living that brings train traffic to a halt, leaves garbage uncollected, mail undelivered, long-distance lines unmanned. And on top of these by-now familiar features of late 20th century Italian life, Mount Etna chooses to erupt once again, showering the countryside with lava, forcing villagers to flee, and leaving death and destruction in its wake. More woe in a weary land. But what else would you expect to find in a place that has seen it all, has survived, and has become almost synonymous with a pervasive state of cynicism? What else indeed but II Papa.
That John Paul II was going to be different goes without saying. His very selection as the first non-Italian to sit on the throne of St. Peter in nearly 500 years guarantees a historic dimension to his papacy. But the "Polish Pope" is proving to be even more extraordinary than anticipated. He's bringing a freshness and verve to his ancient position that must shock many traditionalists, just as surely as it delights the populace. His popularity is astounding.
Already, in less than a year, a kind of mystique begins to surround John Paul II. He breaks tradition, he moves freely into crowds, he seeks contact with people. He sings, climbs mountains, performs the wedding of a street cleaner's daughter, kisses babies, invites groups of young people to his retreat at Castelgandolfo.
You don't have to be here long before hearing rumors that the pope slips away from the Vatican after dark and travels around Rome, incognito, in the manner of Haroun al-Rashid in the "Arabian Nights." True or not, these tales add to the budding legend.
There's more to this than myth-making. John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, clearly stands as one of the most charismatic figures on the world stage today. In an age of disbelief, he's setting people to pray again. In a time when leadership appears lacking, he exudes a sense of strength.
The other day I had a chance to witness firsthand what I had been hearing since arriving here.
Late Wednesday afternoons the pope holds a general audience for the public in St. Peter's Square. On this Wednesday, the way through the city, across the bridge and along the river toward the Vatican, was thick with people. The traffic was immense. When I arrived, the square already was more than half filled, with some 20,000 people jammed closely together facing St. Peter's and more coming from every direction. They waited patiently in the warm September sunshine while the strains of a band echoed off the old walls and mounments. Then a stir swept the crowd, and the shouts and waving of handkerchiefs and banners from tens of thousands of hands began. "Pa-pa! Pa-pa! Pa-pa!" came the cries.
Standing in a jeep and dressed in his white robes and cap, he moved directly into the throng, all the while returning the waves with blessings and gestures of his own.
Back and forth the pope rode, crisscrossing the square through paths cleared for him in advance by his papal guard still wearing the vivid red, black, and yellow uniforms designed by Michelangelo, and back and forth came the response of the crowd: "Pa-Pa! Pa-pa! Pa-pa!" The chemistry between crowds and performer -- and the pope, whose experience includes theatrical training, certainly is that -- always is mysterious. But let it be said, from this somewhat jaundiced non-Catholic observer of public figures and public rallies, that the pope has got "it" -- whatever "it" is.
Perhaps it's the way he holds himself, clearly presenting the look of an athlete.Perhaps it's the vigor he projects, in such sharp contrast to so many of his predecessors, old men nearly all. Perhaps it's just that he obviously enjoys himself and responds to people. Whatever, this pope has a personal magnetism that American politicians, including our present president, would envy.
Two weeks from today the pope will be preparing to leave Ireland, after a weekend visit, on a journey to the United States. His swing through major cities of the East Coast, and to Iowa and Chicago in the Midwest, will represent the first true papal American tour. What the pope will say and how he will address -- if at all -- many of the controversial questions facing the Catholic Church in the United States (the role of women, birth control and abortion notably among them) remains unknown, although these subjects are certainly being debated and discussed within the inner recesses of the Vatican.
But there's another aspect of the pope's forthcoming trip that bears watching. It's nonpolitical, of course, carefully planned to take place before the 1980 presidential year begins. Yet from the minute he arrives in Boston where he'll be greeted by a delegation that includes Sen. Edward M. Kennedy until he departs after becoming the first pope to be received by a president in the White House, you can be sure the politicians will be clamoring to be seen close to him.
Whether John Paul II adds luster to their aspirations, and whether the substance of what he says strikes chords in America at large, are open questions. But from this perspective, from this political watcher, make no mistake that when it comes to style, the latest pope could teach Americans a lesson or two.