Pontificate – John Paul II
There is no doubt that John Paul II was one of the most remarkable and important men of our time.
My own dealings with him were not extensive. But I had the opportunity of meeting with him when he come to Sarajevo in 1997 and I was still the High Representative there.
He was determined to come to Sarajevo and nowhere else in Bosnia.
Some of the more hard-line Catholics were not entirely satisfied, since they wanted him to come to areas were they were dominant. And we were very much aware that some of the hard-line Muslims saw his visit there as offensive. On the Orthodox side, it all boiled down to all the suspicions against Rome dating back, at the least, to the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
But he wanted to come to Sarajevo. It was the symbol of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, although the reality at that time was a somewhat different one.
And he did come. We stood and waited for him at the airport. And at the same time we had to deal with very real security threats. A massive sets of remotely-controlled explosions had just been detected under one of the bridges he was supposed to pass on his way from the airport into town.
We recommended him to go by helicopter instead of by car. We had not had the time to do the additonal searches we wanted along the route as we wished. The pattern of those trying attacks is that that normally have one main option and one backup. We we had not detected the backup – and we were afraid of it.
But the Pope – frail already at that time – did not want to hear the objections. He was there to see the people – not to fly in helicopters.
All went well – although we were nervous. He met the leaders of the Muslim, the Orthodox and the Jewish communities. And went on to the big mass in the main stadium in Sarajevo. It was as full of people as could be.
It was a remarkable event. The Pope was the first one to come to Sarajevo after the war are dare to utter the world ”forgive”. Not to forger – but to forgive. The word hang in the air of the stadium of Sarajevo for minutes before people took it in.
No one but him could have said it. And Bosnia could never move on if it wasn’t said.
I did not see him again until this last Christmas, and then at a distance. He was delivering his traditional Urbis et Orbis on the square outside St.Peters in Rome on Christmas Day. I was standing with the diplomatic community on the roof of the Vatican looking down on the very frail person with the strong voice and the determined will as he read his message about peace and human dignity in the world.
It was a rainy and cold day. Not a day for frail men to deliver speeches outside. But his determination was there, and it was to carry him to the end. That Urbis et Orbis turned out to be the last he was able to deliver himself.
He was a modern man in a medieval dressing. I noted that day that his message was main news on all global news challenge. He was more than just a Pope for the Catholics. He was seeen as a moral voice in a time often devoid of moral values.
He was a true European that reached out to the other parts of the world. His nine-day visit to his native Poland in June of 1971 was truly epoch-making. Witout him, Solidarnosc migh not have been possible, and without Solidarnosc, much in Europe might have turned out differently.
He dared to confront the communist idealogy, the communist state and the communist idea. And he explicitly supported the idea of Europeans coming together to overcome their past.
The Poles are certainly right in honouring him as one of the truly great men of their history – in all probability the greatest of them all.