This insightful portrait of St John Paul II by those who knew him is far from hagiographic

Stories about St John Paul II
by Wlodzimierz Redzioch
Gracewing, £13

We all have an impression of St John Paul II. We remember his encyclicals, especially those in defence of marriage, life and the vocation of women; his tireless travels around the world, proclaiming the truth of Christ; his love for young people and his decision to hold World Youth Days, as well as his heroic acceptance of his own frailty in old age.

But how did he strike those who knew him well during the different stages of his life? This is the question that is answered in this absorbing book. Redzioch, a Polish journalist resident in Rome for more than 30 years, has interviewed the pope’s old friends, his secretaries, Vatican officials and those who experienced the miracles that raised him to the altars. The result is anything but hagiographic: the portrait of a real man of enormous gifts who was also deeply and attractively human. Reading the chapters helps one to realise what it means to be a saint in real life.

The constant refrain from the interviewees is how deeply prayerful John Paul II was. This might seem obvious: don’t all popes pray? Yet there is a distinction between praying and leading a life in which prayer is so deeply part of the life that it cannot be separated from it. Benedict XVI told Redzioch that “from the way [the pope] prayed, I sensed how profoundly united he was to God”.

Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, who served as John Paul’s secretary and who began working for Karol Wojtyła when the latter was still a bishop, relates that “prayer was the centre of his life” and that he “wrote all his speeches, articles and books as Archbishop of Kraków in the chapel.” This habit continued in the Vatican, where he had a desk placed in his private chapel so that he could write in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mgr Emery Kabongo, a papal secretary from the Congo, relates that the pope “always kept the books of the mystics close at hand” – not surprising, given that an early thesis was on St John of the Cross. Mgr Kabongo also explains the particular charisma that so many people experienced when they met the Holy Father: “He knew how to give something to each person. You could see his joy in meeting others.” Another secretary, Mieczysław Mokrzycki, now coadjutor Archbishop of Lviv, adds to this remark with his own comment that “when he was present, everyone felt better, capable of doing good. I think this is the most authentic sign of his sanctity”.

The comment of the late Cardinal Deskur, who had studied in the seminary with the young Karol Wojtyła, (and who had a debilitating stroke just before the conclave of 1978 which elected his friend) shows that Mokrzycki’s experience was evident many years earlier. He relates that even in the seminary days in 1945, “everyone competed to go with him during the weekly walks, because one always returned enriched”. Cardinal Deskur also noted that on the door of Wojtyła’s room in the seminary someone had written “Karol Wojtyła, future saint”. It wasn’t a joke, though: “It reflected our opinion.”

The interviewer also contacted Professor Stanisław Grygiel, another old friend, who explained that one of Wojtyła’s most attractive characteristics, his habit of spiritual “accompaniment” alongside the young people whom he met as a priest, had been learnt from a saintly Polish bishop, Jan Pietraszko of Kraków. It was this bishop who showed the young priest how to be alongside young people by praying, dining and taking recreation with them. Wojtyła took this advice to heart. Through Pietraszko’s example, he learnt that “being a pastor means ‘pasturing’ ”.

Fidelity to his friends was another feature of the late pope. Knowing how hard it was for Cardinal Deskur to be permanently confined to a wheelchair after his stroke, he invited him every Sunday without fail to dine with him at the Vatican when he was not on his travels.

The company of his married friends was also vital to him. Grygiel speaks of a “family atmosphere in the pope’s apartments”. Wanda Półtawska, a Polish psychiatrist and pro-life advocate, was one of these longstanding married friends. As a young woman she had been scarred by her imprisonment in Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war.

Going by chance to Confession to the young Fr Wojtyła in Kraków, she “immediately understood he was a holy priest with a rare ability to listen”. He became her confessor and spiritual director for more than 50 years and she and her family would join him in Castel Gandolfo each summer. When, with young children, she developed breast cancer the pope immediately wrote to Padre Pio. A total and inexplicable cure was the result.

Yet another witness, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, John Paul II’s former press officer, comments that “his poverty was absolute” and that “he never wasted a minute”.

These are only a few of the many insightful, revealing comments and reflections in this book; I recommend buying it to read in its entirety.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (27/11/15)

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