46 Men and Women Share ‘What John Paul II Means to Me’

Remembering St. John Paul II on his 103rd birthday

 Pope John Paul II taking a walk in Canada circa 1984.
Pope John Paul II taking a walk in Canada circa 1984. (photo: Vatican Media )



By Monika Jabłońska

Angelico Press, 2023

263 pages, $30, hardcover; $19.95, paperback; $8.99, Kindle 

To order: amazon.com 

On this day 103 years ago, Karol Wojtyła was born.  

Monika Jabłońska, author of Wind From Heaven, is back with a new book about the Polish Pope, a collection of 46 interviews that could go by the title “What John Paul II Means to Me.”

The interviews are of varying length, with almost every one ending with the question: “How do we build a civilization of love?” The interviewees range from people who knew Karol Wojtyła as a youth in Wadowice (Eugenius Mróz) to people whose paths crossed the Pope’s for periods longer or shorter. There are those whose birth meant that, for them, he was “the Pope” (Vatican journalist Paolo Fucili). There are also reflections on what it means for the Church, 18 years after St. John Paul II’s death, for a whole new generation that never knew him (Father Robert Skrzypczak).

‘A Pope for All Seasons’
‘A Pope for All Seasons’

While all the interviews afford personal insights into the person, life, thought and work of St. John Paul II, of particular interest to me were those whose lives brought them into regular proximity with the Holy Father. That, of course, starts with Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, secretary to the Pope for 26 years and to the archbishop of Kraków for 12 before that. 

“Day after day I was able to observe his austere life, filled with prayer and work.” He relates his experiences on May 13, 1981, the day of the Pope’s attempted assassination, when he fell into Dziwisz’s arms and the whole trip through the Vatican and to Gemelli Polyclinic. He concludes with the day the Pope died. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, John Paul’s vicar for Rome, first met the Pope six years after his election, as a newly minted auxiliary bishop for an Italian diocese. 

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the future prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a newly ordained priest in 1978 and recalls Archbishop Wojtyła’s instrumental role in advancing Polish-German reconciliation. Msgr. Sławomir Oder wasn’t even a priest, just a high-schooler on the threshold of graduation, when the Pope was elected. He discusses how he later found out he would be postulator:

“I was in a hurry to get to the airport when Cardinal Ruini’s secretary came up to me and announced that the cardinal wanted to talk to me. I was very unhappy with this because I had very little time to get to the airport. I even asked if I could talk to the cardinal … upon my return. However, he said: ‘The cardinal very much wants to talk with you and asks to meet with you now.’ I went to the meeting with the cardinal, who knew I was in a great hurry. He asked me, ‘Did you hear what Pope Benedict said [about the launching of John Paul’s beatification process]?’ I replied, ‘I have heard it and I am very happy!’ Cardinal Ruini continued, ‘And I am happy that you will be postulator in this process and now you can leave.’”

Jabłońska doesn’t just focus on ecclesiastical heavyweights. A very interesting interview, for example, is with Arturo Mari who, for 26 years, was official papal photographer with his own unique lens on the day-to-day life of the 264th successor of St. Peter. 

Artists (Placido Domingo, Krzysztof Zanussi), thinkers from Poland (Jan Żaryn, Zbigniew Stawrowski, Rafał Łatka) and the United States (George Weigel, John Hittinger, Paul Kengor), political figures (Michael Reagan, Melania Trump, Lee Edwards, Edwin Meese III) and many others populate the pages of this book.

A book likely to open eyes and bring back memories, its timely appearance commends it to Catholic readers to get to know — and know again — St. John Paul the Great. One can then understand Cardinal Dziwisz’s sentiments: “After John Paul II left us, we started to sing the Te Deum. We wanted to thank God for the gift He had given us, the gift of the person of the Holy Father, of Karol Wojtyła.”