An Insider's Look at the Life of Pope John Paul II

Saturday book pick: A former secretary’s memoirs focus on the personal, day-to-day life of the papal apartment.

Think of Pope John Paul II’s secretary, and Stanisław Dziwisz springs to mind. Then-Father Dziwisz was Cardinal Wojtyla’s secretary since 1966; he served him until the day he died — and is now his successor as archbishop of Krakow.

But over the course of his quarter-century pontificate, John Paul also had other assistant secretaries. One of them was Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, now archbishop of the ecumenically sensitive see of Lviv, Ukraine. These are his memoirs, in interview format.

If Cardinal Dziwisz takes the more macro picture of the historical importance of Wojtyla’s pontificate, Archbishop Mokrzycki focuses more on the personal, day-to-day life of the papal apartment. He speaks about the human side of living with and working alongside Blessed John Paul II. We learn about how then-Father Mokrzycki came to the papal household (in 1996, at age 34, to “organize the work of [the Pope’s] office, but also someone who would support him in moments of weakness, who would help to give a wash and to change clothes”). The junior secretary was also responsible for correspondence and paperwork, as well as inviting guests to papal Masses and meals.

The household, as described by the author, is just that: a household. It is not a papal court. From the bouquet of fresh flowers wafting through the room to John Paul’s sweet tooth. (“He liked sweets so much that quite often he would give the nuns a sign that he wanted a cookie. ... Not even looking towards the nuns, he would draw a circle on the tablecloth with his index finger. He would draw and draw. And he was mysteriously smiling.”) He describes both the daily routine of the papal household (up by 5:30-6am, in bed after 10:30pm) as well as the special times (St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, when one of the nuns who worked in the household would bring gifts; Christmas Eve dinner and the quiet anticipation of New Year’s).

As a young priest and bishop, Wojtyla liked to steal away with young people to the Polish countryside, especially the mountains. Archbishop Mokrzycki tells us how, as pope, John Paul liked to get away once a month — usually on Tuesdays — with his associates and the security detail, to the Italian countryside to read, pray and take a break away from the Eternal City.

Indeed, the personal note is the strength of this book. It is when the author ventures off into policy issues, especially foreign policy, that the book suffers. The Holy See has to stride deftly amidst diplomatic minefields and, as a papal secretary, Mokrzycki has to put the proper spin on things.

That said, to leave the suggestion that Vladimir Putin was stymied by the Orthodox Church (Archbishop Mokrzycki says he invited the Pope to Russia but always deferred the concrete when to an indefinite mañana) seems either naive or disingenuous. Similar sentiments can be voiced about what the archbishop says regarding Yasir Arafat, Fidel Castro, et al. That discussion needs to be expanded or dropped.

With John Paul, however, the personal cannot be divorced from the spiritual. Whatever one may think of particular papal political choices, Archbishop Mokrzycki notes that John Paul was always driven by the desire to help those whom he believed needed his help or whom he could help. The concrete person, with a destiny before God, was always John Paul’s priority. And that humanistic perspective was always nourished by a deep and profound prayer life, which the former secretary regularly describes.

A good and easy read, this book nevertheless provides wonderful insight into what made John Paul II so unique: his humanity.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.



A Story About Everyday Life of Blessed John Paul II

By Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki with Brygida Grysiak

M/F & T Press, 2011

183 pages, $12.90

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