His Life and Legacy

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:   Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla)
Studio:  Koch Vision
Picture:  Color, full screen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Features:  See Review
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history."

Film **1/2

In the 1940's, the Nazis cut a swath of blood through Eastern Europe, targeting Poland in particular because of its access to the sea and its significant Jewish population.  A young man who wore wooden shoes while working all day in a quarry was secretly attending seminary at night.  One day he was hit by a truck from behind and knocked unconscious.  A Nazi soldier of all people found him and took him to a residence so he could receive medical attention and recover.  He did, and continued in his work and studies.  Nazis hated Catholics almost as much as Jews, especially priests and seminarians.  Had the Fuhrer known that his soldier saved the life of a future Pope, how would he have felt about that, I wonder...

Karol Wojtyla lost almost every close relative or friend in his youth before he was ordained a priest.  It is not surprising that he leaned on his faith and was strengthened by it.  His rise in the church was meteoric, and I have always wondered if he somehow saw the hand of God in giving him tragedy and victory in equal parts.  After ordination in 1946, he was awarded not one but two doctorates, taught school, and actually worked as a pastor before becoming a bishop and eventually a cardinal. 

While there have been many fine leaders of the church, most of them were never actually pastors and none in memory ever worked for a living.  They were usually diplomats or administrators for most of their lives.  I am sure that part of the reason for the success of his papacy is that Karol actually had to do manual labor, had hands-on experience as a pastor, and confronted the evils of Nazism and Communism face to face.  He exhorted time and time again in his letters to not be afraid, but to pray incessantly to God and follow the examples of Jesus, his mother and his followers for strength.  Most of all, he stressed the value of every human life in every stage or condition, including members of other faith to whom he reached out over and over again. 

History buffs like myself love to ponder how different the 1960's would have been if not for the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  How different would the 1980's have been had the attempts on the lives of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II been successful?  It makes me cringe just to think about it.  Besides the political unrest and the emotional upheaval, would Communism have taken another few decades to have fallen?  Would more terrorists have taken up the cause to eliminate American and Christian leaders? 

This ABC special is mostly flattering to the late leader, though it provides a typical network television presentation of a flawed "rock-star" leader with its lavish panoramic views of him speaking before tens of thousands of believers.  It also includes the politically correct feminist view of him as being "good for the world but not for the church" presumably because he did not ordain women, and ignores the fact that more women have higher posts in the Vatican than ever before.  ABC seems to feel that they cannot just report the facts but must also present opinions on each side, as if this were the editorial page and not a historical documentary.

On the other hand, the portion dealing with the history of his life is excellent and on par with other cable specials and toward the end a probably accurate analysis reaches an uncomfortable but somewhat reasonable conclusion:  John Paul II's papacy accomplished so many things, yet he did not confront the American crisis until it had already festered and alienated so many Catholics, which seems contradictory for a priest who has expected such theological orthodoxy, and encouraged the advancement of women, yet has not expected these things from his own priests nor granted women the right to be ordained.  Possibly his personal charisma and insistence on tight control from Rome caused the church to enter a holding pattern toward the end of his life and papacy.

The one really annoying problem with the disc is that there are no chapters at all, so you pretty much have to watch it all the way through or not at all.

Picture ***

Mostly stock television footage which is entirely serviceable.

Audio ***

Normal television stereo with good balance which serves the footage adequately.

Features **

The featurettes are nice enough but very short, only a few minutes each.  They include Good Morning America's 2003 visit to the Vatican during John Paul II's 25th Anniversary Jubilee, Diane Sawyer's tour of the Vatican apartments, and Bill Blakemore's comments on the 1978 election. 

Summary :

It will be intimidating to any man to try and fill the shoes of the fisherman the way Karol Wojtyla did.  This special shows most of the reasons for this, but also demonstrates that gulf that is opening between "business as usual" politically correct network specials that intentionally generate controversy and the superior quality of news, drama, and documentaries of cable channels.  I recommend this DVD mainly for non-Catholics who are not familiar with this amazing life and would encourage others to enjoy his writings or one of the many well-written biographies on the life of the unforgettable Pope John Paul II.

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