National Catholic Register


A Pope’s Tears

Benedict touched by John Paul II film


Register Correspondent

April 30-May 6, 2006 Issue | Posted 5/1/06 at 10:00 AM


VATICAN CITY — Once, then-Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz and Polish Sister Tobiana were looking for Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Palace. John Paul was recovering from one of his hospitalizations and should have been in bed. He was found at work in his private chapel.

The Polish nun was the first to speak. “Holy Father, you are still recovering,” she said. “We are concerned about Your Holiness.”

“I, too,” the Pope replied, “am concerned about my holiness.”

This funny scene from the Italian movie “Karol, Un Papa Rimasto Uomo” (Karol, a Pope Who Remained a Man) evoked to the viewers John Paul’s most outstanding characteristic: his fidelity to God’s plan.

On March 30, Pope Benedict XVI and 5,000 people watched the premiere of this film in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. I had the privilege to sit four yards to the Holy Father’s right.

Starring Piotr Adamczyck — who sat next to the Pope during the preview — the 2½-hour movie was produced by the Italian studios Taodue and Mediaset. It is the second segment of a two-part series. The first part, Karol, a Man Who Became Pope, ends with the Polish cardinal’s election to the See of Peter. Benedict watched the first segment in the same hall on May 20, 2005.

You could tell the Pope was looking forward to this screening. He arrived at 5:45 p.m. — 15 minutes before scheduled — with a big smile. He sat on a white chair in the center of the hall, as the lights went off and weeping people were seen on the screen praying the Rosary in St. Peter’s Square at night.

Then we see John Paul in his deathbed on April 2, 2005. In a quick flashback, he recalls the solemn inauguration of his pontificate some 26 years earlier. An energetic John Paul invites all peoples to “open the doors to Christ.”

Scriptwriter Gian Franco Svidercoschi and director Giacomo Battiato magnificently portrayed the late Pope’s capacity to endure suffering and give himself to every person.

Manifold Sufferings

The Pope travels to countries devastated by war, social injustice and poverty, as we see, in brilliant flashbacks, Bishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in his cathedral during El Salvador’s civil war, the 1984 martyrdom of Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, the abduction of children in northern Uganda, the killings in Sarajevo.

John Paul is deeply moved by the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. In his speeches and meetings, he vigorously condemns the Mafia killings in Sicily, the wars in Iraq, the exploitation of the Third World by wealthy nations, the U.N. attempt to legalize birth control at the 1994 Cairo Conference.

Particularly touching are his visits to African people infected by AIDS and to the dying in Mother Teresa’s hospice in Calcutta.

The well-depicted clash between the Polish Pope and the leaders of the Soviet Union reaches its peak in the 1981 assassination attempt. The scene depicting Ali Agca’s actions was, in fact, filmed in St. Peter’s Square. “It was very hard to get the permission,” said the Italian director. It was worth getting it.

“Petrified, as if we were present, we heard again the shots of the tragic attempt in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981,” commented Benedict after the preview.

John Paul’s agony that May marked only the beginning of a long chain of physical sufferings. We see him breaking his femur and his right arm and hardly breathing. His personal doctor, Renato Buzzonetti, provided the filmmakers with many inside stories, such as the way the tracheotomy was performed in John Paul’s throat to allow him to breathe.

John Paul is shown, above all, as a man concerned for every person. From day one in office, he tries to learn the name of the first Swiss Guard he meets. In his audiences and trips, he is attentive to individual stories.

The images reminded me of the days you could shake hands with the Holy Father in the midst of thousands of people — he looked at you as if you were the only one there. I believe he never saw “crowds” of people. He saw, rather, many souls staying together.

The film brings out the special relationship between John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The two, indeed, were united “by an intimate spiritual harmony,” Benedict said.

In Rome’s Gemelli hospital the Pope visits a few sick children he knows by name. He will end up consoling a mother who rejects God after witnessing her little boy dying in bed.

At one point, a prominent cardinal warns the Holy Father about the French bishops’ fear that the 1997 World Youth Day to be held in Paris would be a fiasco. “It will be in August,” the cardinal says. “Besides, this is Europe.”

“In one of my trips to France,” John Paul replies, “a young man yelled at me saying that he was an atheist and didn’t find any meaning to life. I have to go to Paris to give an answer to that young man.”

In the next scene, he tells the same story to one million youth gathered before the Eiffel Tower.

‘Tireless Prophet’

In this film, Benedict XVI said in his remarks afterward, “stands out the figure of a tireless prophet of hope and peace, who traveled the roads of the planet to communicate the Gospel to everyone.”

Most watchers couldn’t restrain themselves from weeping. After the last two scenes, showing the Pope dying and Cardinal Ratzinger celebrating the funeral, we clapped for two minutes. Benedict also clapped, tears silently rolling down his cheeks.

John Paul II became a man for all seasons precisely because he was holy. That’s what the real story of Karol Wojtyla teaches us.

“May our beloved Pope accompany us from on high,” Benedict concluded, “and obtain for us from the Lord the grace to be always faithful, like him, to our mission.”

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s

Regina Apostolorum University.