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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: AP Article on Book by a Friend of John Paul II's 
13th-Jun-2009 09:31 pm
John Paul II Champagne
An interesting little article about a book by a friend of John Paul II's. I'm not sure why there's any particular "controversy" here, or if that's being created or amplified by the writers in order to make their story more "news-worthy." I cannot imagine that anyone would too strongly want to say "they weren't really good friends" if she was invited to be at his deathbed. But whatever. Either way, any book that helps humanize a man like Karol Wojtyla and saves him from being turned into either a plastic version of a saint or just an ideological figurehead is, in my mind, a good thing.

Woman defends book on friendship with John Paul II
Jun 12, 7:56 AM (ET)


WARSAW, Poland (AP) - To him, she was "My Dear Dusia" and he signed his letters "Br" - short for brother.

She was one of a handful of people by his bedside when he died, and visited him in the hospital when he survived an assassination attempt.

In the cloistered universe of the Vatican, Pope John Paul II had a woman friend with whom he shared spiritual thoughts in a series of letters that spanned the decades. Now she is defending her recent book of correspondence with the pope against criticism from church officials that she "exaggerated" her friendship with the late pontiff and could delay his beatification.

Wanda Poltawska, 87, said her book - a collection of her religious meditations and John Paul's letters of spiritual guidance - was harmless to his saint-making process and she dismissed those who sought to minimize her friendship with the Polish-born John Paul.

"Things that are sacred and great are not to be shown to the people," Poltawska said in an interview from her home in Krakow, in southern Poland, where the Rev. Karol Wojtyla was a frequent family guest before being elected pope in 1978.

"What is wrong in a priest's friendship with a woman? Isn't a priest a human being?" she asked.

No one has publicly suggested Poltawska and John Paul had a romantic relationship, and the book makes no such claim. The two, who campaigned together against abortion in Poland under communism, referred to one another as brother and sister, and she often visited the pope with her husband, a philosopher, and four daughters in tow.

But responding to any possible speculation, Poltawska told The Associated Press: "We worked together on the same thing. We got to know each other in work, not in anything else."

John Paul's longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, has criticized Poltawska for publishing the book, saying she claimed to have had a special relationship with the late pontiff that never existed.

In a recent interview with Italian daily La Stampa, Dziwisz said John Paul had many dear old friends from Poland, and made them all feel like they had a preferential friendship.

"That was his secret: to make all those who were dear to him feel like they had a special relationship with him," Dziwisz said. "The difference is that Ms. Poltawska exaggerates in her attitude, and the expressions and display of her behavior are inappropriate and out of place."

Poltawska, a survivor of a German Nazi death camp, was at John Paul's bedside in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace when he died April 2, 2005. She was at his side when he was hospitalized in the months before his death, and visited him at Rome's Gemelli hospital when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt.

And her photos attest to a friendship that began in the 1950s when she sought out a priest to give her spiritual guidance to overcome the trauma she suffered during almost four years at the German Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbrueck, where she witnessed the killings of babies and children. Wojtyla became that priest.

While occupying Poland during World War II, the Germans arrested the then-19-year-old Poltawska for her activities in the Polish resistance. She was imprisoned, tortured under questioning and then sent to Ravensbrueck, where she was submitted to the Nazi's medical experiments with germs injected into her leg.

Poltawska published "The Beskidy Mountains Recollections" in February. It includes her meditations on biblical quotations suggested by the pope in letters he addressed to "Dusia" - the nickname she goes by - and signed Br, short for brat, or brother in Polish.

The 570-page book recalls annual family vacations with Wojtyla before he became pope in the Beskidy Mountains, trips that were filled with praying and religious discussions. It includes pictures of her family with the pope at the Vatican and vacationing in Castel Gandolfo, the papal holiday residence outside Rome.

It includes her diary entries from trips she took after he was elected pope to the places where they had vacationed, where she reminisces with great longing about their times together. She writes detailed descriptions of the places for the pope, who, ensconced in the Vatican, would write to her of how much he missed the mountains and rivers.

And it contains letters back to Poltawska, including one in which John Paul said he believed God had given her to him as his project, considering her difficult personality and her haunting Ravensbrueck past.

"I ask (in prayer) for patience for you, for patience in all these tiny daily chores that are shaking your balance - as if shaking you away from that other truth," he wrote on Aug. 10, 1978, just before going into the conclave that elected his briefly serving predecessor, John Paul I, pope.

"I ask God every day in the intention of Andrzej (her husband) and all your children. God has entrusted you to me with your deep and uneasy 'I' and with your whole life, with everything that belongs to it. I will report on this task before God."

Poltawska, a psychiatrist and family life counselor, said her family's friendship with Wojtyla was not publicly obvious "because we did not talk about it in public, we were discreet."

The emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, criticized Poltawska for publishing her letters, accusing her of withholding the correspondence from the Vatican's beatification process and urging her to turn it over so the process can proceed and "avoid future possible problems."

"We're talking about 55 years of correspondence - a lifetime - so we need to supplement our research into documents we know exist, all the more because it's unusual for such a large collection to exist between a pope and a longtime friend," he was quoted as saying by La Stampa.

Poltawska said she made the letters and text of the book available to Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish prelate who is spearheading the beatification cause.

Oder told the AP that while he couldn't comment directly because he was bound by a vow of secrecy, Poltawska "is a serious person and what she says warrants respect."

Reached Thursday by the AP, Saraiva Martins said he merely meant to say that Poltawska should have turned over all the letters to church officials two to three years ago when Oder was gathering documentation in support of his beatification, the first step before possible sainthood.

"It wasn't done and it should have been," Saraiva Martins said. Asked if it had since been handed over to the Vatican, he said he didn't know.

Pope Benedict XVI put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his 2005 death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" that erupted in St. Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

The preliminary investigation into John Paul's life and virtues, which gathered boxes of documentation as well as testimony from around the world, wrapped up in 2007 when the case was handed over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Theologians, bishops and cardinals are now reviewing the dossier.

Poltawska has no doubt he will one day be sainted. To her, Wojtyla was a "paragon of modesty, poverty and sainthood."

"He loved all people and wanted to save all," she said. "He had nothing: no car, no TV, no phone, nothing. Just a backpack and his prayer book."


Winfield reported from Rome
14th-Jun-2009 03:28 am (UTC)
just free associating
I think in the case of hans urs von balthasar
his friendship with adrienne von speyr however
much it may have helped him to universalism
(as did his friendship with barth) did not help
his style ...I recall one book of his written in
a poetic mystic style something like 'the heart
of the world' and it was very overwritten.
but then his book on maximus which I have is for
me also unreadable as a bit of turgid academic
writing so maybe von speyr helped that...

in any case if von balthasar were up for canonization
I would ask about that relationship, not on any
erotic ground, but as to its psycho spiritual character
and effect...

I suppose in canonization any deep friendship of a
saint to be can be pondered...

a rather grosser example would be andrew wilsons insinuations
about c s lewis involvement with his irish housekeeper...

which does not apply of course with JPII or for that matter
I expect Hans Urs either...

however on the whole this lady does not seem to have been
a loon and to have a friend is if anything as you say a
poaitive sign in a saint indeed considering that hoi polloi
like you and me have friends a saint who did not have any
would make one wonder...
15th-Jun-2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
I do find it embarrassing or humiliating to live in a world where commentary immediately has to be made as to whether there was anything romantic or erotic in a friendship. Even worse is to find such "tabloid-izing" tendencies programmed right into my own brain, whether or not I immediately dismiss the voice raising such questions. Not to be naive about such possibilities, but the difficulty our culture has in just accepting the idea of friendship certainly seems to be a sign of our deeper problems. Holmes and Watson could never just be housemates today without having to deal with an endless amount of insinuations.

I've read somewhat widely in Von Balthasar, but not recently enough to be able to comment on your sense of the differences in his style (or much less whether that might be an artifact of the translations I'd read). But your last point I think especially holds true: I would hold such friendships to be a particular sign of sanctity. Following Saint Benedict, I don't think one can be a saint without such: it's so much easier to love humanity in the abstract – the true ascetical act is to live with people.
(Deleted comment)
15th-Jun-2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
As I just wrote back to Bishop Seraphim in the previous comment on this entry, I think that strong friendships are particularly or especially a sign of real sainthood, and I couldn't easily recognize the sanctity of a person who had not dared to truly know and be known by other people. (Which isn't to say that there aren't kinds of sanctity that I simply don't easily recognize as such.) There's always chances for misinterpretation, and there's greater chances or likelihood for willfill misinterpretation, but I would hardly want to let that hold me back from living deeply with and in other people. Trust me: your own letters are one of the chief evidences of the quality of your character.

I think you're right in asking if one has the gifting of making other's feel "special" as this man did, should not one embrace that feeling as the receiver? To downplay the intimacy felt by other people is perhaps akin here to accusing JP2 of insincerity in his friendships. I mean, certainly you have the phenomenon of other people playing up their connections to someone, especially someone of prominence. The number of pictures people take with the President or with celebrities is a pointer to that: "my close, personal friend..." and all that. But here that seems unlikely. The presence at his deathbed, a correspondence carried on over the years despite the outrageous demands of holding the office of the papacy, annual vacations with Wojtyla in his younger days and even after election as Pope: those aren't signs of a casual friendship to my mind.

Certainly I would especially want to hold on to those relationships that were "pre-papal," if I were elected: how much harder would it be to be "real" with new people after being put in such a position? I'm not sure why his former secretary would have dismissed this, unless he is being quoted out of context, or if he's trying to dismiss other kinds of insinuations.
(Deleted comment)
15th-Jun-2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that made no sense to me, either. I finally decided that it was just poorly-written, either messing up the quotation itself or, more likely, screwing up explaining the context of the quotation, because it seems to make no sense as is. The only possibility I figured is that it was a saying, like "not throwing your pearls before swine," and that she's commenting on the fuss that's being made as being the type of mess that is only raised by those who are either ignorant or of ill-will.
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