Polish Philosopher Discusses ‘Conversations’

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II’s new book, Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums, is based substantially on conversations the Pope had in 1993 with two Polish philosophers, Father Jozef Tischner and Professor Krzysztof Michalski, at the Pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

The 228-page book was released by its Italian publisher Rizzoli at a Feb. 22 press conference in Rome and is slated for publication in English later this year.

Michalski is the director of the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences and has also been a visiting professor of philosophy at Boston University since 1986. He spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about his meetings with the Holy Father and the subjects John Paul addresses in Memory and Identity.

When did these conversations take place?

They took place in 1993, and were conversations between the Pope and my friend Father Tischner at Castel Gandolfo. Those conversations started a process of reflection that ended up with this book. But our conversations and the book are two different things; our conversations were not interviews, and the book is not a report of these.

The conversations took place just a few years after the collapse of communism, which began in 1989. Our main topic was to speak about his experiences with Nazism during the war and communism after the war, and how those experiences influenced his perspective on the world, his understanding as Pope in his public life, and his understanding of his public role.

How do you know the Pope, and how well do you know him?

The connections are professorial. He and I were interested in a similar philosophy; he had written a book on German philosopher Max Scheler and the phenomenology movement. I wrote a book on Heidegger. So he invited me to lunch with Father Tischner, who was also a friend of his.

Then I started visiting him when he was archbishop of Krakow and later as Pope. The Church then played a large part in Polish intellectual life, one that the state would normally fulfill, and the Church was one of the strongest societal institutions. The Pope several times invited a group of intellectuals, leading scholars in social sciences, to meetings at Castel Gandolfo.

There were eight meetings in total and I was the one who put it together. The Institute for Human Reason is not Catholic, but it sponsored those meetings.

How are the subjects you discussed still relevant today?

A lot of these topics are still relevant, but not as much as they were a few years ago. There’s a different context in which these historic events took place. Other things became important. Things had to be put in context, so that’s why the book is different.

The Pope is a very educated person, of course, and he used to be a philosophy professor, but his greatness is not necessarily linked to any particular insights into society, social life or history. His greatness is somehow in connection with the life and ideas that moved him, matters surrounding the [Second World] war and the Cold War.

He was a person who wanted to be a priest and became a priest, and he considered questions of when you have a choice to kill or not to kill as existential problems — how you can come to terms with such a problem. Maybe it moves you to some interesting insights into evil in history and society, but they cannot be taken abstractly; they have to be seen in the concrete situation of that time.

He spoke critically of the response of the Church in first half of the 20th century, which maybe left the opportunity for communism to move in. It was quite interesting, but can’t give you an immediate insight.

What is your view on the Pope’s fears of creeping secularism, possibly of a totalitarian nature?

I wouldn’t call it totalitarian, but the dangers of modern society are big for him. Certainly, the concept of freedom is a key concept in his worldview, and he sees secularism as pushing religion out of society. But he’s not pessimistic; otherwise he wouldn’t call for a New Evangelization. We spoke about that too.

But on the other hand, he doesn’t think that after communism, everything will be dandy.

Jews have been unhappy with his alleged comparison of abortion with the Holocaust. What is your response?

We didn’t discuss that with him. His opposition to abortion hasn’t changed, so his opinion is probably the same, but we didn’t discuss that.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.