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Books blog: A fitting tribute to John Paul II, the extraordinary saint

St John Paul II meets then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2004 (CNS)

Our parish priest, a Pole whose parents came to the UK after the War and who is thus thoroughly anglicised, is celebrating his birthday at the end of November. As he never uses a computer, doesn’t go on the internet or have an email address, I think I am safe in divulging here the present I shall give him: Stories about Saint John Paul II Told by His Close Friends and Co-Workers, compiled by Wlodzimierz Redzioch and published by Ignatius.

Well, I would think of a book for a present, wouldn’t I? But this book is special. It is not just about a fellow countryman of our parish priest; it is about one of Poland’s greatest sons, if not her greatest one, as well as about one of the most extraordinary personalities ever to be elected Pope. I am particularly glad that the compiler, a Polish journalist who has worked in Rome for thirty years, was able to interview older witnesses who knew the young Karol Wojtyla in the early days and before they themselves died, as their reminiscences of the seminarian and young priest before he became world-famous are irreplaceable.

As well as these friends, Redzioch has interviewed Vatican co-workers and cardinals, as well as people who worked for the late Pope in quite humble capacities; he has even got Benedict XVI to talk about his long working and fraternal relationship with St John Paul II. In no way does the book come across as hagiographic, but as the record of a deeply human and magnetic personality, yet someone who shows us from his own life what it actually means to become a saint. There is nothing plaster cast about this process; simply an ever-closer relationship to Christ and thus striving to live as a friend of Christ would do. People criticised those who called out “Santo Subito!” when John Paul II died; this book shows that their enthusiasm was well-placed.

Prayer, not surprisingly, was at the heart of the life of St John Paul II. Benedict commented to the author, “From the way he prayed, I sensed how profoundly united he was to God.” He added that the Pope was also “profoundly imbued with the urgency of his mission.” This will not surprise, but it’s good to have confirmation from a man who, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for many years under JP II, knew him probably better than most other people outside his immediate circle of Polish friends.

Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Archbishop of Krakow but who in earlier years was the late Pope’s devoted secretary both before and during all the years of his papacy, tells us that when the Pope had himself been the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “he wrote all his speeches, articles and books in the chapel.” This was a habit that we know he transferred to the Vatican. It seems a small detail in some ways – but a very telling one.

The late Cardinal Deskur, who had a stroke just before the conclave of 1978 that elected Karol Wojtyla, and who then spent the next thirty years in a wheelchair, had been in the seminary with the Pope. He reminisced: “Everyone competed to go with him during the weekly walks, because one always returned enriched.” Revealingly, he also told the compiler that, “On the door of his room [in the seminary] someone had written ‘Karol Wojtyla, future saint’. It wasn’t a joke. “It reflected our opinion,” Cardinal Deskur said. One might surmise that some of the many severe crosses the Pope was to endure during his life might have been God’s way of guiding this hugely spiritually and intellectually gifted man through the perils of the temptations to pride.

One of the attractive features of St John Paul II was his capacity for friendship. One of his first acts as Pope was to visit Cardinal Deskur in the Gemelli Clinic in Rome. Thereafter, the cardinal was invited every Sunday evening to the Vatican. When he felt despondent about his priesthood after his crippling stroke, the Pope sent him a letter telling him that his mission in the Church was vital, “the mission of prayer, the mission of all the sick and suffering.”

One of the most interesting of those interviewed – a woman who could rightly claim to be a longstanding personal friend – was Wanda Poltawska, a Polish doctor and psychiatrist. As a girl she had been imprisoned at Ravensbruck concentration camp during the War and for a long time afterwards had been emotionally scarred by the appalling things she had witnessed there. Moving to Krakow as a young doctor, she happened to be praying in a church when the youthful Fr Wojtyla entered and went into a confessional. She felt moved to go to confession to him and relates, “I immediately understood he was a holy priest with a rare ability to listen.” He became her confessor and spiritual director and they went on to collaborate closely on pro-life issues throughout his life. She visited him in the Vatican as he lay dying.

She called Fr Wojtyla “Brat”, meaning “Brother”. He called her “Dusia” which means “Little Sister”. She and her husband and children used to come and stay with him at Castel Gandolfo every summer. For more than fifty years she would read aloud to him whenever they met. “He attracted people because he truly loved everyone”, she commented.

There are many other fascinating and moving anecdotes in this book (though not from Cardinal Sodano, former Secretary of State and one of the contributors, who struck me as responding to questions in Vaticanese). Polish or not, readers of this blog might like to purchase a copy to give to their own parish priest for Christmas. After all, we are all called to be saints – including parish priests.