Translating the Wise Words of Pope John Paul II

In 2003, toward the end of John Paul’s pontificate, I received one of the greatest honors in my life.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II (photo: daily_creativity / Shutterstock)

I never met St. John Paul II personally, although during his visits to my native Poland and at European Youth Day in Italy in 1995 I saw him several times at a close distance. But it never crossed my mind that I would yet “meet” him in a way that I could never have imagined.

John Paul II has always been a part of my life, just like many other Poles born in the 1970s. When we became conscious of the reality around us, he was already pope, and he continued in his papal service until we moved well into adulthood. So on the one hand, we sort of took him for granted; and on the other, we all felt his constant presence in our daily lives. To us, he was not only a messenger of God in his capacity of the successor of St. Peter, and so a spiritual mentor, the highest moral authority, but also a great father figure, beloved by the young and the old alike, and a national hero, respected even by those with little regard for the Catholic Church. When we still struggled behind the Iron Curtain drawn over Poland by Soviet Russia, he was our best advocate in the free world, an advocate also for our liberty — a very successful one, as history proved later.

In 2003, toward the end of the Holy Father’s pontificate, I received one of the greatest honors in my life. I had done some language work for the Polish section of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican, and I was asked to translate the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Gregis (The Shepherds of the Flock). Originally written in Italian, it needed to be rendered into Polish. Later, I was also given the job of translating his “Letter to Priests” for Holy Thursday 2004. The work was not easy, especially in the case of the exhortation, which is a very formal document, but it was most certainly worth every effort.

The “Letter to Priests” was my last translation for the Vatican. In October 2004, I was diagnosed with cancer, and my life changed practically overnight. At the time, I was employed as a translator by the Polish branch of an Italian automotive company and, thankfully, I was allowed to work from home (in those days, home office was rarely considered an option). My treatment, extending over several months and including chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had its ups and downs. I was still in touch with the director of the Polish section at the Vatican, a close cooperator of John Paul II, and at one point he told me that he was going to place a card with my name on the Holy Father’s kneeler, along with other similar intentions. Needless to say, I was speechless. Soon afterward, John Paul II returned to the Father’s House, and, a few months later, I was declared cancer-free.

As I was slowly returning to a more stable daily routine, I wanted to find a way to express my gratitude to the Holy Father. Around that time, “Papal Day” was celebrated in Poland in commemoration of his election to the See of Peter. It is organized annually by the Work of the New Millennium Foundation, created in 2000 as a “living monument” to the Pope, in response to his concern about many families driven into poverty. The foundation aims to help talented young people from low-income families with their education, as well as to promote the Polish pope’s teaching and Christian culture in general.

I wanted to contribute to this great “mosaic” of nationwide help inspired by gratitude toward St. John Paul II, but my financial situation did not allow me to go beyond a modest offering. When I asked a vicar at my parish for advice, he surprised me with an idea that had not occurred to me. Knowing that I had provided private tutoring in English for many years, he suggested that I find some time to offer free lessons to a young person who cannot afford them. I followed his advice; and with his help, I contacted a family in our parish. For more than a year, I was helping two siblings who had English at school but needed extra help. And I experienced the simple truth that a gift often enriches the giver even more than the receiver. To this day, I remember the joy I felt every time my young students showed improvement and brought home better grades.

Nearly 20 years after those events, I am being granted another extraordinary honor. Just like before, it has come along through a chain of amazing and unpredictable “coincidences” or, rather, “God-incidences,” that I am contributing to the National Catholic Register. It is so beautiful to witness how God leads us through the tangled paths of our lives, often through years of failed hopes and broken dreams, and then, in a sudden flash of his grace, we receive something that surpasses those hopes and dreams, and we realize how perfectly all the puzzles of our daily joys and sorrows fit together.

As John Paul II encouraged: “I plead with you – never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged.”

I am convinced that St. John Paul II has once again carried me in his prayer.

Kelly Dudek is a passionate philologist, fascinated by the nature of language as well as the language of nature, which makes The Lord of the Rings her all-time favorite book. She received her M.A. in English philology at the Jagiellonian University and complemented it with a course in journalism at the Pontifical University of John Paul II, both in Kraków, Poland. A translator and editor for Carmelite Publishing, she has volunteered at multilingual events like World Youth Day and the European Youth Meeting. Her publications include poetry and prose in the Catholic weekly Niedziela and a weekly column in her parish newsletter. Most recently, she managed international communications for the Family Pastoral Care Foundation, helping Ukrainian refugees.