Tuesday, September 14, 2010
John Paul II Was Haunted By A 'Catolic' Dream
I came across a fascinating tale of a dream of JPII's on the website Catholic Concern for Animals by JR Hyland. The dream was about a homeless mother cat and her kittens. The story was originally related in one of the two hundred some interviews JPII granted author Anton Gronowicz for his biographical book on John Paul entitled "God's Broker". The interviews took place shortly after JPII's election to the papacy and the book was published in 1984. It's a pretty straightforward dream, loaded with lessons for JPII and perhaps lessons for us as well--and some of those lessons might be about about JPII......
"The dream took place in 1969 the night before the Pope, known then as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was to visit New York City for the first time. It was late summer and he had been touring Canada. He spoke of the beauty of its fields and forests and how he had wished for more time to walk in woods vibrant with color and with his "ears filled with the songs and voices of animals."
In the midst of this discussion of Canada, the Pope abruptly changed the subject and said: "The night before my departure from Canada to New York, which I had never seen, I had a strange dream." But his dream was not of beautiful forests, warm with the summer sun. It was of a crowded city, frigid with the cold of a northern winter. And although he had never been there, his dream captured the way Manhattan looks and feels, after a major snow storm.
"It was a terribly severe winter in New York, the city was completely covered with snow. Inhabitants were well-off and warmly dressed, and walking slowly along roads because cars, due to mountains of snow, could not be operated. I was happy that I could walk on top of the snow on avenues of white.
"All my physical effort was spent on walking. To this day, pictures of huge apartment houses on both sides of the avenue are instilled in my mind, and the doormen quickly closing and opening entrance doors as though trying to prevent humanity and warmth from escaping.
"On top of the snow, I noticed a brown cat emerge from a side street and walk on the snow. I looked closer, and to my surprise, saw that this big cat was being followed by six small brown-and- white kittens, all of them following the big brown cat in a perfect line. The mother cat looked back from time to time to see if her babies were there, but her main concern was to reach the entrance door. I presumed she was trying to find warmth for herself and her children, but as soon as she reached the door, a man in a well-pressed uniform, jumped at her with a broom and chased them away. I followed this procession and prepared to deliver a speech to the doorman. I opened my mouth and tried to complain, 'Where is your proverbial American generosity? Where is your American good heart and fair play? Let them in. Let them in!!
"I tried to speak, but the words would not come out. Maybe I was afraid of the doorman with the broom. I started searching my cassock pockets for a piece of bread, found some crumbs and put them on my palms, calling: 'Kitty, kitty, kitty.' But the words would not come from my supposedly intelligent mouth. Instead, the wind blew the crumbs from my palm and I said, 'what can I do? I can't speak to the cats. I can't speak to the doorman. But there are many hungry birds. They might pick up the crumbs.'
"Again, I walked after the cats, now with a pain in my chest, feeling tremendous cold. On the left I saw a church building and thought, 'There we will find help.' I heard singing and again, the idea occurred to me that it must be a Catholic church. The music grew louder, as though trying to convince God that they were praying to Him.
The mother cat jumped in front of me and climbed the stairs, followed by her kittens. I raised my head and saw a tall Jesuit priest chasing the cats off the steps. But as I was about to shout at the Jesuit 'I am a cardinal!' and give an order to accept the cats, the mother cat and her offspring ran behind the church, because from there came the appetizing aroma of food. Probably there was a kitchen there. But a second Jesuit appeared at the kitchen door and scared the cats away. They returned to the avenue and started walking north.
"They walked on the same side of the avenue as the Jesuit church and I followed. Then they reached an imposing red brick church. An Anglican bishop appeared and said to the cats, 'My dear animal children, please go immediately to the animal shelter. There is food for you there. We Anglican clergy donate lots of money to the animal shelter, every year, at Christmas time.'
"The mother cat and her kittens didn't even meow. They knew the authoritative voice of the Anglican bishop. They walked uptown and gradually the luxurious buildings disappeared, together with the doormen, and we saw drab dilapidated apartments.
"As they walked and the buildings grew shabbier and dirty, a door was opened, not by a doorman but by an old wrinkled woman in a cotton dress. [She saw the cats] and shouted 'Oh, little mother,' and when she opened her mouth I saw she had few teeth. She gently ushered the mother cat and kittens inside, who jumped happily about because the warmth of the house embraced them."
The narrative ended as the cats found a safe haven with the woman who had little enough, herself. When the Pope concluded his dream the author to whom he related it did not make any comment on what had been said. But he did write that "I had never seen such a sad expression on the face of this man." Considering that this was the same man who had related the horrors of his young manhood, under Nazi occupation, the author's remark shows the deep impact this dream had on the Pope.
If the Pontiff offered a commentary on his dream, Anton Gronowicz does not share it with the reader. But we are told that John Paul began to recite the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi."
There are a number of schools of thought as to what dreams are and what the symbolism represents. What I find fascinating about this dream of John Paul's is that it maintains a continuity in time and place. It could very well be a real story, and not a dream. This aspect may be the reason that it seems to have so effected JPII so strongly. Dreams like this are hard to dismiss, precisely because they follow our normal waking experience of reality.
There are some aspects of this dream that I found very fascinating, such as the portrayal of the Jesuit priests, the Anglican Vicar, and JPII's own inability to either feed the cats himself or open his mouth to use his influence as a Cardinal to change anything for the better. The dream doesn't paint a very flattering picture of the clergy as effective servants for the least amongst us--no better than an apartment doorman. The dream ends with the least of humanity giving hospitality to the least amongst us. It's easy for me to see where JPII's face displayed great sadness. His own dream portrayed the clerical caste, of which he was a high ranking member, as either indifferent, compartmentalized in their charity, or in his case, impotent to effect change.
The most obvious interpretation might be JPII"s dream is a kind of modern version of the Nativity story. There is no room at any inn for this mother and her kittens until they find a 'toothless hag' who willingly takes them in because she recognizes a 'little mother' and the stray family all live happily in the warmth of her home.
A wrinkled toothless hag is hardly the first picture for Mother Church that would come to many people's minds, but it did to JPII's mind. Of course, real Christian love has nothing to do with outward appearance, and everything to do with inward warmth. I can't help but wonder if JPII ever understood the core meaning of his dream and what it might have portended for his papacy. I think he probably did get the gist of the dream but as he himself experienced in the dream, he couldn't act on or articulate this particular understanding about the Christian Church. As he experiences in the dream: "But the words would not come from my supposedly intelligent mouth."