Intimate Memories of the Late Pope

April 2009By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

A Life With Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship With the Man Who Became Pope.  By Stanislaw Dziwisz. Doubleday. 260 pages. $22.95.



A Life with Karol is an easygoing dialogue between Gian Franco Svidercoschi, vice-director of L'Os­ser­vatore Romano, and Stanis­law Cardinal Dziwisz (pronounced Gee-vish), the man who served as Karol Woj­tyla's personal secretary from 1966 to 2005. In the course of the book we gain many insights into the late Pope's great heart and noble character.

The Cardinal recalls that Wojtyla, as Archbishop of Krakow, never seemed to need anything, though he had only one flimsy "black outer garment" to which he would add an insulated liner in winter. When he became Pope, he refused the papal tiara and coronation and went on living just as modestly as before. Although his needs were met, he had no stipend, no money to call his own, and his living quarters consisted simply of a small study and a bedroom divided by a screen. On the wall in front of his bed were two pictures: one of "the suffering Christ bound with cords" and another of "Our Lady of Czestochowa."

The Cardinal remembers how the Pope would show empathy for the poor during his travels. One time, when visiting a shanty-town in Brazil, "he kept looking around, almost in despair because he didn't know what he could do to relieve the suffering of the people in that particular place and at that particular moment. And then he surprised everyone by taking off his papal ring and giving it to the inhabitants." Another time, when he had been feeding lepers in Mother Teresa's hospice in Calcutta, he hugged Mother and whispered, "If I could, I would make this my headquarters as Pope."

Besides poverty, Wojtyla embraced a life of prayer and contemplation. There was "nothing sanctimonious" about this, for he was "in love with God." The sisters who took care of his residence in Krakow used to discover him "prostrate" on the floor of his chapel "immersed in prayer," and likewise in Rome his secretary used to find him "prostrate on the floor of the chapel, completely immersed in prayer." He would rise each day at 5:30 AM and go to his chapel for morning adoration, Lauds, and meditation until 7 AM Mass. Later too he would interrupt the time set aside for work with "short bursts of prayer," and so "never stopped praying throughout the day." Besides Mass, the Breviary, and frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, each day he would say the entire Rosary, "his favorite devotion," and on Thursdays make a Holy Hour, and on Fridays the Stations of the Cross. He would keep "the full fast even at an advanced age" and read Holy Scripture each day. Even on his deathbed he asked that the Gospel of St. John be read aloud; he died during the ninth chapter.

Suffering was for him a form of prayer. After the assassination attempt, he thanked God for "allowing him to join the community of the sick who were suffering in the hospital," and wrote the apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris to expatiate on the "deep meaning" and "immense value" of suffering "lived out in union with Christ crucified and risen." He would often remind people that there is no loss of dignity in accepting suffering, and though at the end of his life some newspapers criticized the "so-called display of the Pope's suffering," he used to say at every loss of his physical capacities, "Thy will be done…. Totus tuus."

As Bishop of Krakow he went to confession weekly (standing in line with others in a Franciscan church), a practice he continued as Pope. When he visited his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison to give him his forgiveness, he was saddened by Agca's reply: "I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer. So why aren't you dead?" Years later, he mentioned with concern that Agca had "never once" said the words forgive me. With regard to forgiveness, the Pope wanted the Great Jubilee of 2000 to be a time for Christians to "purify their memory of all the sins, mistakes, and forms of counter­witness they'd been guilty of down through the centuries." He wanted to "request forgiveness without asking anything in return," seeing all this with the eyes of faith. But some cardinals worried that the history of the Church might then be seen as just "one long string of sins." On March 12, 2000, the Day of Forgiveness, the Pope spent "several minutes embracing and kissing the feet of the corpus on the crucifix," and then "the look on his face" seemed to say, "It had to be done; it had to be done."

John Paul II wanted to combine "the Church's mission with service to all men -- all men, not just abstractly, not just symbolically, but in their concrete, historical reality, both as individuals and as members of social communities." But some within the Church were shocked that he made man, insofar as he is redeemed by Christ, "the 'way' of the Church," as if he had put the primacy of God to one side. But behind the Pope's focus on man was his firsthand experience of the "two totalitarianisms" of the 20th century. This is what made him passionate in "defense of the dignity of the human person."

The Pope went boldly into the public square because he couldn't see the Church confined to the sacristy. He thought the Church should be wherever "man is." She should walk "with man and society, but always on the road of moral engagement," not politics. Only once did Cardinal Dziwisz see the Pope angry, and it was in relation to the question of morality and politics: He had just visited some camps sheltering refugees from Southeast Asia, when a journalist said, "You raised the political issue of the refugees." The Pope replied with an unusual note of "ire" in his voice: "It's a human issue -- human! It's not about politics. Reducing this to politics is all wrong. The basic human issue is morality."

He appropriated as "naturally Christian" the principles once thought to be the "exclusive preserve of the Enlightenment," and put them on "a coherent ethical foundation" to make them capable of serving man and supporting "his fundamental rights, starting with the right to life." He knew that the Church, on the basis of the Gospel, could claim "the right to judge whether or not the various political programs were compatible with God's plan for humanity." She had to exercise an "option for man" and be "at man's service," so as to free man from "every sort of coercion, abuse of power, and injustice."

In the great battle over morality during his pontificate, he was often accused of being reactionary, but what he proposed was "a humanism he thought could help contemporary man rediscover the authentically moral meaning of his history and destiny." He was deeply concerned about "bioscience, where research was already encroaching on the sacredness of life." On the question of the family, he wanted the Church to be "bold and unyielding," and was grieved when international organizations phased "the word family out of their documents." He was also grieved when Europe wouldn't "acknowledge what it actually needs most today: a recovery of the values that built it and made it great in the world." He saw a "serious disrespect for women" gaining ground, one that turned them into "objects of enjoyment and pleasure." He wanted to help them "recover their dignity," while reaffirming the Church's position on women's ordination. The Pope asked Mother Teresa to be a "roving ambassador for life" and was grateful when she became an "apostle of life," proclaiming all over the world "the dignity of the human person and the defense of life, from conception to natural death."

The Pope saw culture as something that helped man be "more himself." So he dialogued not with governments, but with "peoples (the heirs of a given cultural patrimony) and nations (the guarantors of national identity)." He thought culture was the root of the "norms by which a society lives," and that in cultural memory every nation might find "the means to defend its own identity and sovereignty." He would also meet yearly with scientists and philosophers "to become informed about the latest developments in human thought, and, most important, to verify whether they did or didn't serve man and human dignity."

He was working with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace one day when he had a prompting to declare: "I've realized what we need, a prayer for peace with all the religions!" He himself chose Assisi as "the most suitable place from which to invite representatives of the world's religions to set out as pilgrims on the road to peace: an unprecedented event." The World Day of Prayer for Peace, held on October 27, 1986, brought down so much criticism on his head that the following year he jokingly told Andrea Riccardi, "They almost excommunicated me." Cardinal Dziwisz defends him, observing that most of the critics feared Assisi "might open the door to syncretism, to the idea of a big spiritual melting pot where every religion is as good as every other. But that completely missed the point. Completely. The Holy Father explained over and over again that we met together to pray, not that we met to pray together." He saw it as a "great sign" that on that day there had been "no fighting anywhere." Finally, Cardinal Dziwisz calls it false to say that Cardinal Ratzinger disagreed with Wojtyla on Assisi.

In 1966 the Church in Poland was "the only force working to promote freedom." At the time, Wojtyla sought to dialogue with communist leaders on such issues as "the freedom of the Church to proclaim the gospel and engage in its apostolate, together with the freedom of man, both individually and socially, spiritually and materially." But human freedom was precisely what the communists "hated most." As archbishop, Wojtyla never acted "politically," but always "in the name of the Gospel, in the name of the dignity of the human person." Even so, he was sure that the future of Poland didn't belong to communism, a totalitarian system that was not only inefficient but "above all unjust and deeply, deeply discriminatory." Under it, all Catholics were "second-class citizens," while party members enjoyed "privileges." Nor could there be "such a thing as Communism 'with a human face,' because Marxism takes away man's freedom, and so limits his ability to act and develop." It constantly propagated "atheism and didn't recognize the freedom of conscience of religious bodies." Like Nazism, it was a dead-end street.

Moscow tried to prevent the Pope's visit to Poland in 1979, but he ended up going and speaking there about "the rights of man" and "moral solidarity" at a time when the Solidarity Union did not exist. Communist authorities threw up "ridiculous" roadblocks to prevent his meeting with the people, yet he managed to address two million in Krakow and spoke to them of the need to strengthen Poland's Christian faith, on which "the nation had built its history, created its culture, and forged its inheritance." He asked them to mount "an unfailing defense of the dignity of the human person." It was an unforgettable moment: "The people, with the Pope at their side, were beginning to feel free, interiorly free, and to stop being afraid." During his 1983 trip to Poland, too, he thus addressed a crowd of two million at Czestochowa: "Poland should be sovereign and that sovereignty is based on the liberties of the citizenry." He also arranged a meeting with Lech Walesa to let the communist regime and the entire world know that the Solidarity Union was alive and well, though officially nonexistent in Poland.

Still, the last thing he expected was that liberty would arrive "so swiftly and with so little bloodshed." In 1996 John Paul II and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walked through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, which had once been "supposed to immortalize the triumph of Hitler," and which had afterwards been occupied by the communists. The Pope then beatified some of Hitler's victims in the stadium where that tyrant had watched the 1936 Olympics, seeing the beatification ceremony as "the visible seal of God's victory in the tremendous battle against evil."

We learn, too, that the Pope was saddened by the first Gulf War, thinking it might "result in new and serious complications throughout the whole Middle East," and that he was positively "oppressed by grief" at the fall of the Twin Towers and at his failure to prevent the second Gulf War, which he feared might become "a war of civilizations or, even worse, a 'holy war.'"

There are many more touching reminiscences in this book than can be mentioned here. The book unfolds casually, like a quiet evening conversation between old friends. While there is virtually nothing on the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S., it might be observed that in the wake of the "collegiality" of bishops endorsed by the Second Vatican Council, the scandal rests at the door of the U.S. bishops themselves.



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I liked this review and will probably buy the book now.

I don't doubt that John Paul II was a very holy man. A concomitant of holiness is usually clear thinking, and clear thinking engenders good writing. So why, then, is everything he wrote such a chore to wade through?
Posted by: mlhearing
April 09, 2009 10:25 AM EDT
One must remember that one of the first thing the late pope was known for was as a literary and philosophical prodigy. In my opinion, his writing is seen as "complicated" because of his innovative philosophical attitude; viz., he was one of the principal thinkers (inc. e.g., St. Edith Stein, Robert Sokolowski) to unite certain principles of phenomenology to a robust Thomistic foundation. Phenomenological terms and thought can seem very complex at first, but in reality, once one truly understands its principles, it is not half so difficult as Thomistic thought.

The book to read to acquire the only true knowledge one needs of phenomenology--and which might aid in understanding the full meaning of the late pope's ideas--is called "Introduction to Phenomenology" by Msgr. Robert Sokolowski. Or, one might try his "The God of Faith and Reason", though I personally find it not nearly as useful as the former.
Posted by: N.W. Flitcraft
May 15, 2009 12:35 PM EDT
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