This may astound you, but poets and their poems are sometimes just plain wrong, as when John Keats, in his sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” has “stout Cortez,” instead of Balboa, staring out at the Pacific; or Longfellow, in “The Landlord’s Tale,” has Paul Revere “a shape in the moonlight,” riding alone (there were three riders), etc.
My mistake in “Habemus Papam” (Latin for “We Have the Pope”) was one of prediction. I confess I was wrong about Francis; instead of preaching the “usual crapum,” he seems to be calling for a more inclusive Catholic Church. The new Pope’s demeanor has been thrown into relief by the noise around him; while he’s gently saying — even to John Boehner — “Pray for me,” Donald Trump is shouting to everyone, “Look at me!”
Jeanne and I have some experience in this Pope business. In 1978-79 the Meinke family lived in Warsaw, when two major events pulled the Poles, smothered by their hated Russian bosses, out of despair and depression: first, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and then an ex-professor and poet, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John II, the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th century. Poland’s a Catholic country, its religion inseparable from its politics, so they went bonkers. (Once I asked a Polish colleague why the church crosses were always lit at night. “It’s not for Jesus,” he said. “It means that Poland is still fighting.”)
Just as Pope Francis may prove to be a catalyst for social/sexual changes in church doctrine, John Paul II was a catalyst in the collapse of Communism, and galvanized Poland to shake off the Russian bear hug. Jeanne and I saw him lift the Iron Curtain with his bare upraised hands.
In the spring of 1979 rumors began to fly through the streets of Warsaw: the new Pope — a Polish Pope! — was going to visit Poland. Nothing was in the papers (nothing important or true was ever in the papers). It was all word of mouth, wildly speculative. Would the Russian dictators let him come? Would they let the people see him? Then one day, suddenly, all the liquor stores in Warsaw were closed, and everyone knew: Pope John Paul II was on the way!
On June 2nd the Pope arrived. Poland was “roped off” into sections, in order to keep the whole country from traveling to Warsaw. By 8:30 a.m. the streets were lined 10 deep around Victory Square, many in the crowd wearing colorful and heavy peasant costumes in the summer heat.
With smuggled tickets from a friend, we slowly wiggled our way to the Square by the afternoon, and witnessed the whole event. An estimated 3 million people spread out from the Square — the largest outdoor Mass in the history of the Church: loudspeakers everywhere, soldiers nervously lined up in the alleys in case the people began to march. They didn’t then, but at the same time, listening on the radio in Gdansk, Lech Walesa and the dock workers were printing posters and unrolling their Solidarity banners. Pope John Paul raised his hand: The people began chanting, in that huge Square named for the Soviet victory in World War II, “We want God! We want God!” SOLIDARNOSC
In my poem’s defense, I’ll point out that, though Francis has been mostly pushing for the “right” things, so far not much has actually changed. The Church remains fabulously wealthy and corrupt, and with its rules on abortion and the place of women, the “poor poor will weepum” for the foreseeable future. But somewhere some nuns may be circled together, like Walesa and the workers, and who knows what they may be knitting?
—“Habemus Papam” by Peter Meinke, first appeared in The Tampa Review and is in his book The Contracted World (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).