The 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 7:32-35
Gospel: According to St. Mark 1:21-28
Early in my teaching career I saw a text in a book shop with the title The Pope’s Divisions and a photo of the pope at the time, John Paul II, on the cover. My interest was piqued by what I saw and so I bought it and began reading the introduction where I learned the genesis of the rather intriguing title.
I mistakenly believed that British journalist and Rome correspondent Peter Nichols was referring to the difficulties with the post-Vatican II Church that were brought to a head by the election of this relatively unknown Polish pope. There were certainly a number of divisions in the Church, and illustrative of those divisions was the image of Sr. Theresa Kane, R.S.M., standing up to ask the new pope “in a respectful but firm tone” (as described by the New York Times) if he would consider “the possibility of women being included in all ministries of the Church.”
To my surprise, Nichols was not thinking of that tense moment in Washington, D.C., between John Paul II and the head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or any other internal dispute within the Catholic family. He was referring to, of all people, Josef Stalin who was responding to Pierre Laval, the French Foreign Minister. In 1935 the Minister suggested that Pope Pius XI would appreciate the cessation of the Soviet repression of the Catholic Church in Russia, and Stalin (by the way, not his real name – “Stalin” means “Man of Steel”) replied: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”
For Stalin, the man directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, “authority” meant “power,” and what better way to calculate power than by the number of divisions in one’s army? To Stalin’s way of thinking, the pope had absolutely no power because, with all due respect to the Swiss Guard, the pope had no army. For the self-proclaimed Man of Steel, one’s authority rests entirely on one’s ability to kill.
While teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus cures a man possessed by an evil spirit and, as St. Mark tells us, “all were amazed.” Their conclusion is that this Man offers “a new teaching with authority” and thus “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”
For these new followers of Jesus their attachment to Him had nothing to do with power in the military or political sense, but with authority, a power based upon a sense of awe. Theologically, the term “awe” is linked with the phrase “fear of the Lord,” one of the traditional Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is understandable that those in the synagogue in Capernaum were amazed by and attracted to Jesus, and it is equally understandable that they were a bit frightened as well.
In 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited his homeland for the first time, he appeared in public with the sitting, and last, President of the People’s Republic of Poland. General Wojciech Jaruzelski and the pope each stood at a podium and addressed the crowd. A camera was positioned at the side of the stage, and from that angle one could see the right leg of Jeruzelski shaking violently. This puppet dictator who had the full force of Soviet military power behind him was filled with awe and fear of the Lord at being in the presence of a man who, without any military divisions, was armed only with the authority of Christ and His Gospel.
Had he thought of it, General Jaruzelski could have asked Pope John Paul – a true Man of Steel and literally wearing a red cape – the same question that the demon asks our Lord, “Have you come to destroy us?” The answer given could have been both “yes” and “no.” On the one hand the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union are no more, due in large part to the Polish pope and the Solidarity movement he inspired.
But more important than the removal of that evil political spirit from the possessed peoples of those Slavic lands was the conversion of General Jaruzelski form his personal demon. In his return to the Catholic faith of his birth and his funeral Mass in the Church of Our Lady Queen of the Polish Crown we see the ultimate victory of the Christ and His Vicar for whom no military divisions are needed.