Being in Poland at the time of the long pontificate of Jean-Paul II meant that he was a very central figure in the affairs of the Polish State, this despite the fact that many Polish politicians were not necessarily his fans. But being politicians they had to show proper respect and speak in code so as not to offend the powerful Polish Church and other Catholic zealots. On the other hand Lech Walensa the former leader of Solidarnosc and ex-President of Poland was not liked much in Poland which for us Canadians was always a puzzle. Was he not sort of the great man of resistance to the Communist authorities? By becoming President and siding time and again with the Church did not make him popular, for a lot of Poles it was like you replace the Communist dictatorship by a Catholic dictatorship. Walensa was also seen as a man of little education and he apparently could not speak very well in public often using slang expressions and not having enough gravitas in public. Poles preferred figures like General Josef Pilsudski (1867-1935) or Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941) Walensa was too of the people.
In the Spring of 1999 it was announced that the Pope would come and visit Poland again, he actually came 9 times between 1979 and 2004. June was set date and an elaborate program was laid out including visits to many cities and mass rallies and all manners of public events. Considering that the Pope suffered from an advance state of Parkinson’s disease at the time, many of us wondered if he would be able to do everything. His Press Office and the Polish Catholic Church controlled the agenda and the messaging was not only optimistic but enthusiastic, yes he would go hiking in the mountains and yes he is ill but it has no impact on his daily activities. The truth was very different, the Pope was frail and many activities announced were often at the last moment modified into some other activity. But every time we were told that he had decided to change the program to cram in even more activities to please as many people as possible, it was not true of course, but the gullible public was willing to believe anything and the Polish and international press played along.
Per example there was a large monument across the street from our Embassy building and the Pope was scheduled to come and bless it. In the end the pope mobile passed by, stopped briefly, Jean Paul II raised his hand and blessed it and then simply moved on. A small circle of people knew that his team of doctors would prepare a medical cocktail each day and would either increase or decrease certain drugs to allow him to do his program. One day the medical team over medicated him and he was unable to get out of bed. It was announced immediately that he had the 24 hour stomach flu and he needed to rest, nothing to worry about and then a series of interviews were given by specially designated Catholic spokes persons to reinforce the point that the Pope was vigorous and would continue to work from his bed directing the affairs of the church and attending to other matters. All this was a lie, in reality Jean-Paul II was not conscious and his entourage were very worried he might have to return to Rome immediately or worse be hospitalized in Poland, his condition was that serious.
The health of Popes is a little like the health of the Soviet leaders, everyone has the 24 hour flu until suddenly they are dead. Every word has to be measured and only positive or optimistic pronouncements are allowed after having been vetted by advisors and senior Cardinals who alway have an eye on the political impact of events and developments. Also Popes despite having all the necessary means at their disposals do not always have the best of medical teams. Again consideration is given to Canonical Law and Church doctrine what is allowed and not allowed or what could go against Church teachings, after all the Pope is in God’s hands, the Heavenly Father decides not us. Modern medical science plays only a side role not a primary one. Finally another element maybe more venal, all the people around him lose their positions when a Pope dies. The new Pope will have a new Court around him so if you are waiting to be created Cardinal or if you want this or that prominent post or a commission within the Curia or become bishop in some diocese, you have to make sure your cause is advanced while the Pope can still sign a decree granting your wish.
It was known that once Jean-Paul II died all the Polish prelates would go, there would be a house cleaning, though the public is never made aware of this. Though it was no secret in Rome that the Polish group was not well liked by other members of the Curia. The reason being that mixing Polish Nationalism, Nationhood, Politics and Religion mixed with, in some cases, extreme Conservative views never a good cocktail, though you find this in other countries like Orthodox Christian Russia and Greece.
Jean-Paul II wanted to visit Russia in what was described as the Spirit of Ecumenism and dialogue. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch rejected the idea of such visit for various reasons. One main reason being that the Orthodox Church does not recognize the supremacy in Christendom of the Bishop of Rome (Pope) and in this case of a Pole over a Russian and how would that play politically in the popular minds in Russia to see such a visit happen. Jean-Paul II could have visited had he taken the role of the supplicant and drop the title of Pope for that of Bishop of Rome, knowing the man this would never happen.
The rest of the June visit continued after this flu episode but the pace was more leisurely.