In God’s Hands
The Spiritual Diaries of Pope John Paul II
Translated by Joanna Rzepa
512 pages, $35 (hardcover)
Many Catholics have read Divine Mercy in My Soul, the spiritual diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, the “Apostle of Divine Mercy,” or maybe The Story of a Soul, by the great doctor of the Church St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Yet the personal diary of a pope is something of a unique sub-genre within autobiographic literature because there are few such diaries available among the 266 men who have held the Petrine office since Our Lord made St. Peter the first pope.
One notable example is Journal of a Soul, the spiritual diary of Pope St. John XXIII. And now comes In God’s Hands, offering the dairy of Pope St. John Paul II, focusing on his retreat notes.
The volume carries a preface by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, a lifelong friend and assistant to John Paul II. The cardinal shares reminiscences of John Paul II in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, immersed in God, when he was bishop of Krakow. And he remembers the sighs of the Pope coming from his personal chapel in the apostolic palace as he prayed. Perhaps hinting at the mystical life of the Pope, he adds: “His radiant face never revealed his inner experiences.”
Saved by Cardinal Dziwisz
Surprisingly, these notebook dairies may not have seen the light of day — at the Pope’s express request. In the preface, Cardinal Dziwisz writes that, just a few months after his election as pope, John Paul II wrote a “last testament,” dated March 6, 1979, setting out what should be done with his few possessions after his death.
“I leave no possessions of which it will be necessary to dispose,” wrote John Paul II, adding: “Let my personal notes be burned.” John Paul II added subsequent paragraphs to the testament over a number of years, the last in March 2000. He referred to the retreats and spiritual exercises through the testament and its additions. However, Cardinal Dziwisz reveals what happened after the Pope’s passing to eternity: “I did not dare to burn the personal notes and notebooks that he left behind because they contain significant information about his life.
“I saw them on the Holy Father’s desk, but I never looked into them. … [T]hey are a key to understanding his spirituality, that is, what is innermost in a person: his relationship to God, to other men and to himself.”
Cardinal Dziwisz, one of the longest-serving assistants to the Pope, presented the notebooks to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as part of the beatification process for John Paul II.
The dairy entries offer deep insight into the Polish pope-saint.
One entry, just a few paragraphs and one of the shortest entries in the whole volume, is quite possibly one of the most profound and reveals the mystical insight of the Pope.
It outlines how, three days before Cardinal Wojtyła’s election as pope, a close friend of his, a certain Bishop Andrzej Deskur, suffered an unexpected and serious stroke. Cardinal Wojtyła visited his friend en route to Rome. Linking the event of his election and his friend’s suffering three days before, he wrote: “The sacrifice of Andrzej, my brother in the episcopacy, seems to me to have been a preparation for this event. … His cross became the last word of my initiation.” He added: “I have become a debtor.” He then reveals that, 11 years earlier, when he was appointed to be a cardinal, another friend, Father Marian Jaworski, lost his arm in a train accident, and he again links this to his selection as a cardinal.
Unlike other notes written during retreats, this entry focusing on his friends stands alone as a spiritual reflection, demonstrating a spontaneous expression of the Pope’s inner life, not prompted or expected, as would more likely be the case during a retreat.
And prayer punctuates the tomes. As he wrote in March 1993, “Life should become a prayer, but it is necessary to meet God in prayer first.”
The annual Lenten retreat for the Pope and prelates serving at the Vatican is the principle feature of the diary from the year of his election as pope onwards. It provides a useful and interesting potted history of the Church in contemporary times.
These annual retreats began in 1929 with Pope Pius XI, who announced his intention to hold them annually, in his encyclical on retreats, Mens Nostra, written at the end of 1929.
Among the few selected to preach the reflections for the Pope’s retreat is a future pope (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), a cardinal on the path to sainthood, having suffered greatly under communism (Servant of God Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan), the former heads of the Salesians and Jesuits (the former also being the Pope’s confessor) and another cardinal who suffered greatly under the communists (Jesuit Cardinal Jan Chryzostom Korec). There are also a number of biblical and theologian experts and other prelates, demonstrating a wide range of topics covered by the retreat leaders. One gets the impression that these retreats were not a mere formality, but something essential for the Pope’s spiritual life.
Readers will remember that St. John Paul II placed great emphasis on the attempted assassination against him May 13, 1981, and the apparition of Our Lady at Fatima on that date, saying that it was she who guided the bullet so that he survived.
John Paul II’s Marian devotion has been widely discussed, and it is worth mentioning that his Totus Tuus (“Totally Yours”) to Mary is strongly present from the very first page of the retreat notes of July 8, 1962. To her he gave his ministry, and it was with her that he understood his vocation and identity as a priest and bishop.
The full version of his papal motto, taken from the writings of St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort reads: Totus Tuus ego sum, et omnia mea Tua sunt, Accipio te inmea Omnia, Praebe mihi cor tuum, Maria (“I am entirely yours, and all that is mine is yours. I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart”).
Throughout his notes, he constantly refers to Mary and her unique mission, her relationship to God and to the Church, her example in the Gospels, and how she provides us with a perfect example of the virtues.
On several occasions throughout the diary, he refers to the “holy slavery” of consecration to Mary in the manner of St. Louis, mentioned above, which he discovered as a young man working at the Solvay chemical factory in Poland as a young university student during World War II.
There are also some rather unique expressions of devotion not often heard elsewhere. For example, in one retreat, he writes that the Church on Earth is “the City of the Immaculate” and will be so in heaven (a reference to the “City of the Immaculate” founded by fellow Pole St. Maximilian Kolbe). Elsewhere, he refers to Mary as the “Mother of Hospitality” in reference to her example within the Holy Family of Nazareth and the Wedding Feast of Cana. In a separate retreat, he wrote that Mary is the “Most-Cultivated Queen” and mother of true human, grace-filled culture.
And, in September 1976, he penned: “Mary is the Mother of the Church. She is also the Mother of priests. She bears in Herself a unique fullness and unique maturity of ‘royal priesthood.’ What is relevant to it can be found in Her plenitude. Thus she is also the Mother of priests and the Mother of the bridal love to the Church, by which every bishop should live, following Christ.”
It’s obvious that, among the few possessions the Pope had, the notebooks were of great importance to his spiritual life, shown by the assiduousness with which he maintained and returned to them each year.
Within this arrangement, there is a set plan to each retreat, again something that is consistent throughout the notes. The rhythm of each retreat included spiritual reading, meditation, litanies, Rosaries, Masses, the Divine Office, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Ignatian method of meditation that the Pope learnt as a young seminarian under the guidance of Father Stanisław Smoleński.
Toward the end of his life, illness made it nearly impossible for him to hold a pen and write retreat notes. He would participate in the retreat from his private chapel via a live television link, with the schedule of the retreat in hand.
Although sparse in words, his patient and heroic witness as a man of suffering at the end of his life was its own example for us to reflect upon.
His retreat notes tell us of a man fixed on God, Our Lady and his vocation at the service of the Church.
writes from London.