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An Intimate Side of John Paul II

New book on his priesthood 'tells all'

BY J. Colina DÌez

December 8-14, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/8/96 at 2:00 PM

 

The 30th anniversary of the conciliar decree Presbyterorum Ordinis was celebrated in the Vatican Oct. 27, 1995. Pope John Paul II joined many priests there in sharing some of his experiences of priestly life. His subsequent Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday last year gave further glimpses into the Pope's vocation. Many requests from priests and lay persons from around the world followed those two events proposing that the Pope complete his “confessions.”

When Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, the secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, asked the Pope to write the story of his vocation he resisted at first. He finally accepted the offer, in the belief that his personal testimony could help the more than 400,000 priests around the world to live their priesthood, a mandate of his Petrine ministry.

In order to stimulate papal memory, Archbishop Sepe asked the Italian journalist Gian Franco Svidercoschi to draw up a series of questions. Fellow journalist Vittorio Messori had used the same technique to get John Paul's insights on the wide range of topics covered in the 1994 bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Svidercoschi, who has covered the Vatican since 1958, did not limit himself to posing questions. Instead, he devised a kind of cinematographic sequence to stir the Pope's memory.

John Paul II began to record his recollections last June about his priestly life on audio cassettes in Polish. In great detail, the Pope recalled the persons and events that marked his life and that would, unbeknownst to him, prepare him to be the Supreme Pontiff. The Pope then edited the recording to produce the recently published, Gift and Mystery.

Svidercoschi is the author of various books, including Letter to a Jewish Friend, an account of the extraordinary friendship between Jerzy Kluger and Karol Wojtyla that first developed when they were children in Wadowice, Poland. Svidercoschi recently spoke with the Register.

Register: How would you classify Gift and Mystery?

Svidercoschi: It is not exactly an autobiography. The Pope responded very freely to the questions I presented to him. It could be called a book-testimony. Probably, throughout history, no Pope has ever spoken in this way about his inner life, by opening his heart so naturally and spontaneously, confiding his most intimate and secret thoughts.

When requests poured in from people asking him to write his testimony, no one expected reflections in such personal, intimate terms about his vocation that, for him, as for any other priest, is a great mystery.

Do you think that by writing his own biography the Pope is running the risk of creating a hagiographic portrait of himself?

No, that has nothing to do with it. In recalling his path toward the priesthood and his years of priestly ministry, the Pope also recalls his human, existential adventure. There is no doubt that in the various periods of his life, throughout the different experiences with his family, in the religious climate in Poland at that time, and later in his studies, the theater, work, the war and later communist dictatorship, there is a leitmotif, a path that would “prepare” him to guide the universal Church at this precise time. The Pope simply reveals God's ways that led him to be Peter's successor.

You're saying that to understand the Pope, we have to understand the man, the priest and the bishop Karol Wojtyla?

That's right. It is not possible to understand this Pope unless we consider his heritage of faith, culture and history. We cannot understand him in depth unless we go back to the origins of his vocation, to his ministry as a priest and bishop. The first and fundamental inspiration of his pontificate ripened there: the encounter, through redemption, between the truth of God and the truth of man, within the unique and unrepeatable singularity of the [human] person. On one occasion, he explained that in order to write his first encyclical, which would mark the direction of his whole pontificate, “I only had to copy"- those are the Pope's exact words- “in a certain sense the experience and the memory of what I had already lived before the pontificate.”

I'll give you an example. In chapter seven of Gift and Mystery, the Pope recalls how he was able to know from the inside the two total-itarian systems of this century. “Therefore,” he writes, “it is easy to understand my sensitivity regarding the dignity of each human person and respect for his or her rights, beginning with the right to life. This sensitivity was forged in me during my youth and reinforced over time. So, it is easy to understand my concern for the family and youth: everything has grown in me in an organic way through those dramatic experiences.”

Could it be said then that John Paul's way of being Pope is no more than the continuation of the style of being a priest and being a bishop that characterized Karol Wojtyla?

Many analogies can be found [between his pontificate] and both [his life] as a priest and as a bishop. His apostolic voyages very much recall the pastoral visits he made in Krakow. His decisive contribution to the fall of the [Berlin] Wall was undoubtedly due to his direct knowledge of Marxism. The same could be said about his attitude with young people, families, women, or his particular concern for the apostolate of the laity, a theme that appears continuously. We can say the same about his dialogue with the world of science and culture, or his openness to the Jewish religion, the problems of peace and justice in the Third World, and so on.

Will Gift and Mystery alter our perception of John Paul II?

The Pope reveals the foundation of his strong personality. He explains how he always felt himself to be a man of today and, at the same time, a man “out of time.” A priest's “today” must be integrated with the “today” of Christ the Redeemer. Therefore, he never felt out of fashion because his knowledge of contemporary man has a transcendent dimension. This shows how fragile and superficial all the political labels are that have been applied to him.

John Paul II has the charisma of a true adorer of God, a mystical dimension. He is not only a perfectly contemporary man but he also bears the stigmas of the suffering and tragedies of humanity. His pontificate is a sign of newness, of change for the Church, and a contradiction of all the false idols of today's world.

—J. Colina DÍez