Should John Paul II's personal meditations have been burned or not? 14 things to know and share
BY Jimmy Akin
| Posted 2/5/14 at 10:35 PM
It was recently announced that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz did not burn the private papers of Bl. John Paul II, as was requested in his will.
Now they are being published in book form in Poland, and it’s causing quite a stir!
It also raises some interesting questions.
Here are 14 things to know and share . . .
1) Who is Cardinal Dziwisz?
Currently, he is the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Poland.
But, many years ago, in 1966, he was appointed the personal secretary of Karol Wojtyla, who was then the Archbishop of Krakow.
Archbishop Wojtyla was made a cardinal the next year, and in 1978 he was elected to the papacy and became Pope John Paul II.
When that happened, he retained the future-Cardinal Dziwisz as his personal secretary, and he served him in that capacity until his death.
Cardinal Dziwisz was thus one of the individuals closest to John Paul II during his pontificate—and before.
2) Where did John Paul II express his wishes about the fate of his private papers?
The document in question is known as the Testament of Pope John Paul II, and it is available online.
The document was first written in 1979 and supplemented and modified over the years, as John Paul II’s reign progressed.
The part dealing with his private papers is in the first section, written just a few months after he became pope.
3) What does that passage say?
The relevant passage reads:
I leave no possessions of which it will be necessary to dispose.
As for the things I use every day, I ask that they be distributed as seems appropriate.
Let my personal notes be burned.
I ask that Fr. Stanisław [Dwizisz] see to this, and I thank him for his help and collaboration, so understanding for so many years.
On the other hand, I leave all my other "thank yous" in my heart before God Himself, because it is difficult to express them.
Note that Cardinal Dwizisz is the only person John Paul II singles out by name for thanks. That is how close the two were.
4) Did John Paul II “order” Cardinal Dwizisz to burn the papers?
Some news outlets (like this one) are reporting it just that way, but “order” may not be quite right.
I don’t speak Polish, so I can’t comment on the force that the statement has in the original language of the document, but “Let my personal notes be burned” is not as strong in English as “I order that my personal notes be burned.”
5) Did John Paul II ever modify his instruction?
This is not entirely clear. If he did so, he didn’t note the change in his Testament.
However, the BBC is reporting:
The cardinal says he spoke to the Pope [in context, John Paul II] about which notes should be destroyed and which should be kept.
If that is the case, John Paul II may have reconsidered the matter and given Cardinal Dziwisz permission to publish some of the notes.
Hopefully, the matter will become more clear, because if that is the case then the whole matter is a tempest in a teapot.
6) What has Cardinal Dziwisz to say about why he didn’t burn the notes?
According to the New York times, Cardinal Dziwisz said:
“In writing his will, the Holy Father knew he was entrusting these notebooks to someone who would treat them responsibly,” Cardinal Dziwisz said at a news conference in Krakow on Jan. 22.
“I had no doubt these were such important items, testifying to the spirituality of a great pope, that it would be a crime to destroy them.”
He invoked the despair of historians after the burning of Pope Pius XII’s letters.
He thus thought there was a compelling reason to keep them.
7) If John Paul II did not give permission for some of them to be retained, could Cardinal Dziwisz set this aside?
Not lightly. What a person says in his will needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and it is not to be lightly set aside.
Nevertheless, there are situations in which particular provisions of people’s wills can and are set aside if there are compelling reasons.
8) Are there compelling reasons in this case?
I have no idea. I don’t speak Polish and I don’t have access to the notes. I thus have no way of assessing the value of them, either spiritually or for future historians.
Cardinal Dziwisz, however, appears to think that they do have such compelling value that they should have been retained, for he describes it as being “a crime” to destroy them.
Given that, and given that he may have received authorization from John Paul II to retain some of them, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
At least, I’m going to keep and open mind and not rush to condemn him.
I can see there being situations in which a man of greatness may not fully appreciate the value of his private notes.
His private notes may not be his “A game,” but his “B game” may be of sufficient value that it is worth preserving for posterity (and I can think of multiple instances from history where this was the case).
9) Could Cardinal Dziwisz be wrong to have done this?
Yes. Cardinal Dziwisz is in a unique position to appreciate this (because he was the only one with access to the notes), and it was his call to make.
At the same time, because of his close relationship with John Paul II, there is a subjective element to his decision.
I can imagine that, upon publication of the notes, some might think that they have value, but not so much that it should have overridden the late pontiff’s wishes.
In such a case, one might have a different opinion than Cardinal Dziwisz and think he made a mistake, but not put his actions in the category of a horrible crime.
10) What kind of pushback is the issue getting in Poland?
According to the New York Times:
But the Rev. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, an expert on the Catholic Church’s role during the Communist era in Poland, implored Poles not to buy the book because its publication violated John Paul’s will.
“In European culture, a final will is always binding, as long as its realization isn’t against the law and morality,” Father Isakowicz-Zaleski told TVN, a Polish television broadcaster.
“This is required not just by legal statutes and good manners, but also by respect for the dead. This public act of disobedience is a form of anti-witness, and can’t be justified by any explanation that it’s for the good of the church. Does a clergyman serving as a secretary know better than St. Peter’s successor?”
This is putting matters in a sharp and rather inflammatory way. Not everyone who has read the manuscript agrees.
11) Who disagrees?
According to the Times:
Not everyone has condemned the cardinal’s choice to publish John Paul’s notes, not even some who were initially skeptical.
“I admit that without having read the book, I was sadly surprised with the decision,” the Rev. Adam Boniecki, an influential Catholic intellectual, wrote on Jan. 22 in Tygodnik Powszechny, a leading Catholic weekly in Poland.
“After reading the notebooks, however, I am grateful that in this matter, he didn’t come as scrupulous bureaucrat.”
12) What would John Paul II think of all this?
We can only speculate, but I suspect that the following is correct. The Times notes that R. Andrew Chestnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University thought the following:
In the end, he said, John Paul would probably have absolved the cardinal for what some consider a moral transgression.
“The pope, though he may have been irritated, would have forgiven him,” he said.
I suspect that’s right. I assume that the personal notes being published don’t contain anything truly scandalous, and as long as that’s the case, I suspect John Paul II would be inclined to forgive him.
After all, he forgave the man who shot him, and this is nowhere near that.
13) So what is actually being published?
According to the BBC:
The 640-page book, Very Much in God's Hands. Personal Notes 1962-2003, contains Karol Wojtyla's personal reflections on religious subjects from his time as Bishop of Krakow until two years before his death in 2005.
Cardinal Dziwisz recently told reporters he had "no doubt'' about publishing the collection. "These notes are so important, they say so much about the spiritual side, about the person, about the great Pope, that it would have been a crime to destroy them.''
The ideas in the book are briefly sketched, with some written in just two or three sentences, says the BBC's Adam Easton in Warsaw.
Adam Szostkiewicz, a prominent religious commentator who opposed the book's publication, says much of it is impenetrable to the average reader.
14) If the book comes out in English, should people buy it?
That depends on how much benefit you personally would get from it, which is something that can’t be determined unless and until it’s out in English.
Personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to boycott it.
Boycotts are only worthwhile if they have a real chance of performing a concrete good.
Once the ideas are out there—and they are now out there in Polish—the question is how to produce the most good out of the situation.
It’s hard for me to imagine that the most good would be achieved through boycotting.
For those who end up agreeing with Cardinal Dziwisz’s decision, there obviously would be no need to boycott.
For those who disagree with the decision, I think the logical next question, since this is all about John Paul II’s wishes, would be: “What attitude would Bl. John Paul II want me to take toward Cardinal Dziwisz? A forgiving one or an unforgiving one?”
I think we know the answer to that.
What do you think?
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