Byline: John Cornwell
While traveling in Italy in the mid-1980s, I stopped at a town called Lanciano, near the Adriatic coast, where I discovered a shrine that even the most devout Catholics might find alarming. In the early Middle Ages, a local monk was assailed by doubts while celebrating Mass; he could not believe that the bread and wine on the altar had become, as Catholics believe, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. According to legend, God performed a miracle to boost the faith of the monk and of the entire community: in an instant the wine in the chalice became actual human blood, and the bread became a piece of flesh the size of a chicken breast. To this day the items can be viewed by pilgrims, though the wine is now moldy globules in the chalice in which it is preserved, and the flesh looks like a piece of extremely unpalatable gray offal.
It is not an article of faith for Catholics to believe that they are literally eating flesh and drinking blood. That would only confirm the ultra-Protestant view that Catholics are cannibals, at least by intent. I was therefore astonished to see prominently displayed at the entrance to the shrine a blown-up photograph of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1974, just four years before he was elected Pope John Paul II, piously venerating, and thereby endorsing, this suspect "miracle."
Cardinal Wojtyla's veneration of the Lanciano cult anticipated a key to his papacy that has gone unnoticed in the torrent of obituaries following his death on April 2. More than any other Pontiff in modern history, he promoted the belief that God intervenes miraculously and routinely in human affairs, and especially in the conduct of his own papacy. John Paul II will probably be remembered as John Paul the Great, but his principal claim to immortality, I believe, may be as the Pope of the supernatural. His deep attachment to the miraculous, the visionary, the mystical, and the apocalyptic was a form of supernatural realism that bordered on unorthodoxy if not downright heresy. It should come as no surprise that a Pope believes in miracles, but the extreme position he took on signs and wonders, prophecies, and the literal operation of God's power in the world over the laws of nature explains some crucial features of his reign.
The downfall of Soviet Communism, the antagonisms tantamount to schism between Catholic liberals and conservatives, the conflicts over the right-wing Catholic body called Opus Dei, the creation of a prodigious number of saints, the tardy contrition of America's bishops regarding the scandal of the pedophilia crisis among Catholic priests-these and many other issues were marked and affected by John Paul's unusual relationship with the supernatural.
He was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a market town 20 miles southwest of Krakow, Poland, in the year of a great national religious miracle. The country had been struggling to rebuild its independence after more than a century of oppression by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. On August 16 in the year of his birth, the day after the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Red Army was defeated in a battle known to the Poles as the Miracle of the Vistula. The victory was achieved, according to popular belief, not by the Polish Army but by the direct intervention of the Virgin. As Wojtyla grew up, he revered a copy of the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, known as "the Queen of Poland." In the 17th century the Black Madonna had been credited with saving the Polish nation from destruction at the hands of Scandinavian hordes. Throughout his priestly life, Wojtyla would punctuate his sermons with references to Poland's centenaries and jubilees, its cults and devotions to the Virgin Mary, and especially the icon of the Black Madonna. As a student he visited the site of the shrine and the original of the icon at the monastery of Jasna Gora, and he returned there shortly after he was elected Pope. A copy of the icon of the Black Madonna took pride of place in his private chapel in the Vatican.
He was 9 when his mother died at the age of 45; his elder brother, Edmund, 14 years his senior, died 4 years later of scarlet fever. Karol was …