John Paul II Showed the Key to ‘Living Everyday Life in the Christian Way’

Longtime friend recalls his holy witness as well as ‘lovingness and kindness.’

Top: Pope John Paul II. Bottom: Professor Karol Tarnowski.
Top: Pope John Paul II. Bottom: Professor Karol Tarnowski. (photo: Top: FORTEPAN/Jezsuita Levéltár, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons. Bottom: Andrzej Serafin - Praca własna, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Karol Tarnowski is one of the leading philosophers in Poland. He is a professor at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland, and specializes in the philosophy of God and phenomenology. As a young adult, he was a member of the Środowisko (“Milieu”), or group of young people who received spiritual formation from Karol Wojtyła and went on hiking and kayaking trips with him, where he met his wife, Maria, who was one of the translators who worked on the Polish edition of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II Witness to Hope.

He spoke with the Register just ahead of the centenary of John Paul II’s birth about his memories of a blessed friendship.


When did you first meet Karol Wojtyła?

Someone recommended him as a confessor at St. Florian’s parish in Krakow. I was absolutely captivated by his dialogical method in the confessional. Wojtyła did not only ask me to confess my sins, but there was a true discussion, and he listened to me empathetically. He was never a priest who acted like he knew best, but, instead, the focus was on dialogue. This was very rare in the Church at the time. He did not care that there was a line of penitents waiting for him, and he gave me his time and attention.


Pope Francis has asked priests to not be excessively harsh in the confessional. So Wojtyła could be considered the kind of confessor Francis would like?

Naturally. Francis and John Paul II both emphasize humanity in the sacrament of penance. Francis continues this human dimension of confession.


In general, do you see continuity between John Paul II and Francis?

I have no doubts about that. There is continuity, but also evolution. In a certain sense, Francis develops certain topics that are symbolized by St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion. John Paul II discovered this, in a sense, and introduced it to the Church, while Francis expands this current of mercy to include “tenderness.” This is a word John Paul II probably would not have used, because it stems from a certain Latin American spirituality of Francis. Wojtyła was also more intellectual and restrained in nature, but he was nonetheless very friendly and kind.


When did you begin to go on kayaking trips with “Wujek” [“uncle” in Polish], as Father Wojtyła was called?

After a certain period of being my confessor, he invited me to go on trips with him. On our trips, we led a pretty spartan life. We would go hiking in the Bieszczady Mountains and carried many pounds on our backs. We shared the challenges of the trip, during which individual contacts with Wojtyła were difficult. This changed when we would go kayaking. Then, each day, another person would accompany Wojtyła in his kayak. Then they could talk about spiritual matters.

In the evenings, we would sit by the bonfires and mostly sing, but this was also an opportunity to talk with the future pope, who would share his observations on the participants of the trip. Naturally, every morning we celebrated Mass. In my opinion, what was most important about Wojtyła was the ability to introduce Christianity into everyday life, into really mundane reality. This was not so much expressing devotion, as simply living everyday life in the Christian way.

This created a certain atmosphere of the group that would bring us closer together. Later, we would meet throughout the year; we would have parties after kayaking trips, for example. We would dance, and Wojtyła would come. We would attend Masses together, usually in St. Anne’s Church. The better we knew Wojtyła, the more we could speak with him. He had less time when he became a bishop, but he still had time for us, nonetheless. I was a bit shy, so I did not speak with him as much as the others, but we still had intellectual conversations on faith, nonetheless.


Did you meet your wife through Wojtyła’s “Milieu”?

Yes. We met during a pilgrimage we went on each year to Jasna Góra by train. Wojtyła celebrated Mass and the Stations of the Cross there. I met my wife, Maria, on the train. We started going on trips together, and that was how our relationship started.


Wojtyła worked a lot with young engaged couples; his play The Jeweler’s Shop deals with this. How did the future pope help you and your wife in your preparations for marriage?

He had very serious conversations with us and was very concerned about us. My wife and I had individual conversations with Wojtyła, who was not enthusiastic about our relationship, because he believed that our personalities did not match. He tried to dissuade my fiancée from marrying me and suggested a different boy for her, although she did not fall in love with him. Indeed, we were probably a difficult couple, because we were both anxious people.


Did you have hard feelings toward Wojtyła since he recommended against your marriage?

Not at all. I understood his intentions, and, truth be told, I agreed with him to an extent. Ultimately, Wojtyła did accept our engagement. He gave us the sacrament of marriage in Wawel Cathedral and baptized our daughter. He always accepted us. Wojtyła taught us what divine fatherhood was, accepting everyone. He was never harsh, although he could be demanding. He was a loving man, never a harsh moralizer.

I think this was related to his Thomistic formation. The idea of the theology of creation, which is a theology of acceptance, was dear to him. I think that the key to understanding him was his conviction that all creation is good. I saw this when he was close to nature.


You, like Pope John Paul II, are a philosopher. Did Wojtyła influence your vocation?

He probably did, although not directly. He certainly did not encourage me to study philosophy. However, his Thomistic intellectualism probably influenced my tendency to philosophize.

I began to appreciate his philosophy rather late. I read his Acting Person rather early, but it did not immediately inspire me. Much later, when I began to think about the philosophy of the subject, I returned to Wojtyła. His most important thought that inspired me was his saying that the human person is an irreducible being. From a Thomistic perspective, this is very important. Wojtyła said that what is irreducible is what is a subject. In this sense, Wojtyła was modern. He was not Carthesian, but I do see the influence of St. Augustine and Descartes on his thought. His reflections on this in The Acting Person are, in my opinion, excellent. This is seeing the world through the individual experiences of the person.


When Wojtyła became a bishop and later pope, how did your friendship evolve?

When we had troubles, we would come to visit him in the archdiocesan curia and talk with him. We would ask him to pray for us and give us advice. When he became pope, he told us to visit him in Rome so that we would be in touch regularly. We would visit him as often as we could, and we were always invited to have meals and talk with the Pope. Our relationship was very intimate. It was a special kind of friendship: We called him “Wujek,” which in Polish means “uncle,” so it was a kind of hierarchical friendship. He was, after all, 17 years older than I. It would have never crossed my mind to be with him on a first-name basis, for example. But it was friendship, nonetheless. He knew everything about us, and what we shared was very close.


What did you discuss with the Pope during these meetings?

We discussed about Church matters, politics or spirituality, but also about specific figures in the Church. There was no gossiping, however. I remember one conversation in the Vatican about spirituality in Western Europe. John Paul II insisted while Western Europe did not experience the kind of totalitarian rule our part of Europe did, there is such a thing as capitalist totalitarianism and that democracy could become totalitarian. He disliked the West’s obsession with material wealth and social liberalism. I completely disagreed with him, and I thought he was too harsh. However, he later publicly did support Poland’s accession into the European Union.


When was the last time you met with Pope John Paul II?

It was in 2003 for our 40th wedding anniversary. He was very ill and frail then, but he did welcome us. We were able to have a private conversation without the pope’s secretary nearby. He celebrated Mass. This was very moving, as we could see how weak he was becoming.


How did you react to John Paul II’s death?

Just like everyone else, we were deeply affected by it. I was most moved not only by the very fact of his death, but also by the fact that I saw how people all over the world, not only in Poland and Rome, loved him and felt they had lost someone dear. The process of his death was incredibly moving to me. The youth loved him, and they were a priority for him. He appreciated the spontaneity of youths. Clearly, Francis has continued this.


When you spent time with Pope John Paul II, could you see that he was a living saint?

Absolutely. I could see this from the very beginning in how he prayed, both in nature and in a church, as well as in his lovingness and kindness. There was nothing of clericalism about him, a feeling of superiority of priests over laypeople, in him. He did have a great love and respect for priests and the Tradition of the Church, however.


Apart from John Paul II’s focus on young people, what do you consider to be his greatest contributions to the Church?

For me, his ecumenism, his openness to other religions was most important. I above all appreciated his revolutionary change in the Church’s attitude toward the Jews and his prayer for peace with the representatives of different religions in Assisi. Pope John XXIII began this process, but John Paul II expanded this.

I also consider his apology for the sins of the Church throughout the centuries in 2000 to be extremely important. By beating his breast, he showed the world that the Church is not only a triumphant one, but that we are also a Church of sinners.

Register correspondent Filip Mazurczak writes from Krakow, Poland,

where he is an English tutor to professor Tarnowski.