The past week has provided an excellent illustration of a far-reaching change of political emphasis at the Vatican under Pope John Paul II.
Once deeply involved in domestic Italian politics, the Vatican scarcely blinked when the Christian Democratic Party, which it has traditionally supported, suffered its biggest setback in a general election in over 30 years. The pope had other, more important, matters on his mind: developments in his native Poland.
Scarcely a week after arriving back in the Vatican after his second pilgrimage to Poland in four years, the pope again turned his attention to Polish affairs today. He received a delegation of senior Polish bishops led by the primate of Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, to discuss with them over lunch the political fallout from his eight-day visit.
The pope's preoccupation with Poland, and the role played by what has become known as the "Polish Mafia" in running the Vatican, has caused grumbles among traditional church bureaucrats. Another cause of friction is the marked contrast between John Paul's intensely personal style and the more moldable personalities of his many Italian predecessors.
A lack of communication between the pope and the curia is blamed here at least in part for the public relations disaster that occured when the semiofficial Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano came out with a front-page editorial that appeared to suggest that Polish labor leader Lech Walesa resign. The editor responsible for the article was later forced to resign, but by that time the damage had already been done.
"A lot of the bureaucrats around here just don't know how to get hold of this pope. They like the fact that he is tough when it comes to matters of doctrine. But they complain that he ignores his paperwork and is obsessed by events in Poland," remarked a senior priest at the Vatican who asked not to be quoted by name.
Much of the grumbling stems from the simple fact that the Vatican was run for centuries by Italians. When Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected pope in October 1978 as the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, church officials and Vatican diplomats found that their habits and intricate web of personal friendships were suddenly disrupted.
John Paul quickly instituted his own channels of communication and information parallel to the official papal household, which is known as the Secretariat of State. He refused to become a prisoner of the Vatican bureaucracy and took to visiting Roman parishes every week and inviting lowly priests for meals. He has also traveled more than any pontiff.
The most important of the pope's unofficial channels of information is the Polish Mafia. The key figure in this network is his private secretary, the Rev. Stanislaw Dziwisz, who accompanied Wojtyla from his former diocese of Krakow in southern Poland. It also includes members of the Polish community in Rome led by the pastor of the Church of St. Stanislaw, Msgr. Szczepan Wesoly.
In his private apartments on the top floor of the Vatican palace, the pope is looked after by a group of nuns who followed him from Krakow after his election. They traveled back to Poland with him earlier this month.
"It can take months and months to arrange a private audience with the pope through the official channels of the Secretariat of State. Through the Polish back door, it takes a matter of minutes--and this angers the old-time bureaucrats," remarked an American priest.
Mixed in with criticisms of the pope's personal style are more substantial complaints that he is ignoring other parts of the world.
"Anybody around here with any concern for Latin America is close to despair. When the pope arrived back from Central America in March, guess who was out there to meet him at Rome airport as soon as he got off the plane. Glemp!" the same priest said.
An insight into the usually secretive world of Vatican politics was provided last week by the crisis at L'Osservatore Romano. The resignation of the paper's deputy editor, the Rev. Virgilio Levi, exposed differences among the staff, which are widely believed to reflect divisions higher in the Vatican hierarchy.
Journalists at the paper said that Levi had sought instructions on how to handle the pope's visit from his superiors in the Secretariat of State. His requests for guidance went unanswered--apparently precisely because the issues involved were so delicate and affected the pope personally. Levi was, in effect, dismissed for exercising his own journalistic discretion.
Publication of the article was seen around the world as a formal signal by the Vatican of its willingness to sacrifice Walesa to reach an agreement with Poland's military authorities.
This interpretation has been strenuously denied by Polish sources at the Vatican who insist that it is completely at odds with the pope's real intentions.
The small Polish community in Rome is divided between the official Poles who are mainly congregated around the embassy and the emigres who look to the church for leadership. After Wojtyla became pope, a special "Vatican Interests" section was added to the Polish Embassy in Rome headed by a former minister for religion, Jerzy Kuberski.
The Polish churches and colleges in Rome are still emblazoned with the old prewar national emblem of the crowned eagle. The pride in Wojtyla is reflected in the mementos on exhibit in the Polish College in Rome, including what is said to be the last cap he wore as a cardinal before his election to the papacy.