Despite the world’s fascination with All Things Papal, there isn’t much out there about papal humor. Which is, in a sense, entirely understandable: it takes a certain breadth of imagination, shall we say, to imagine Gregory XVI or Pius XI telling a joke (much less telling one on himself). Blessed John XXIII is an exception, as he was in many other ways, and two of his wisecracks have been widely circulated. In one, the Pope is asked how many people work at the Vatican, to which the pontiff replies, “About half.” In the other, the Pope visits the Convent of the Holy Spirit, where the somewhat flustered nun in charge greets him by saying, “Welcome, Your Holiness, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit,” to which John responds, “Congratulations, sister; I am merely the Vicar of Jesus Christ.”
I hope that the publication of my new book, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Doubleday), adds the Polish pope to the short list of papal humorists, where he certainly deserves a roster spot.
John Paul II’s humor, as I experienced it, tended toward the ironic: not in the post-modern sense, in which irony is the short road to cynicism, but in the more venerable sense of irony as a recognition that we’re not in charge of our own lives, and that we play the fool if we try to control everything. Thus one of my favorite John Paul II stories involves the late pope turning the skirmishing fire of his humor on himself and his office.
The distinguished Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr was in Rome at one point during John Paul’s pontificate, and the Pope invited him to dinner in the papal apartment. When they were seated at the table, the Pope asked Stuhr what had brought him to Rome, and Stuhr replied that he was playing in a production of Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve. The Pope spoke about the importance of this drama in Polish history — Forefather’s Eve was considered such an emotionally inflammatory evocation of Polish nationalism that its performance was banned in the Russian- and Prussian-occupied parts of partitioned Poland during the 19th century — and then asked Stuhr what role he was taking in the Roman production of Mickiewicz’s classic. Stuhr replied, “Your Holiness, I regret to report that I am Satan.” To which the Pope, on reflection, said, “Well, none of us gets to choose our roles, do we?”
On another occasion, John Paul II turned his own humor against that unhappy attempt at humor known as the Polish joke: in this case, the habit that Germans had, in the 1970s, of calling shabby goods, shoddy work, or any kind of foul-up “polnische Wirtschaft” — “Polish business”.
In the wake of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal of the early 1980s, in which the Vatican bank was embroiled, the Pope summoned several cardinals known to be knowledgeable about finance to the Vatican to sort through the wreckage. After spending the morning listening to a tale of corruption, incompetence, bureaucratic self-preservation, and general stupidity, John Paul decided it was time for lunch. As he was walking with the cardinals toward the meal, he spotted the German Joachim Meisner, cardinal archbishop of Cologne, and walked up beside him: “Tell me, Eminence,” John Paul said, with that signature twinkle in his eye, “do you think we have some polnische Wirtschaft in the Vatican finances?” As Cardinal Meisner told me years later, his jaw dropped and he was “speechless.” Later, after lunch, several of his brother cardinals asked Meisner what the Pope had said. “It can’t be translated,” was the German’s discreet reply.
A great Christian thinker once noted that joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence. If a robust sense of humor is an expression of a fundamentally joyful stance toward life — a stance founded on faith in God’s ultimate triumph over what so often seems to be the world’s tragedy — then the humor of John Paul II is yet another reason to recognize in him a life of heroic virtue.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.