The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II: a silly programme that revealed no secrets

St John Paul II, pictured in 1996 (AP)

What on earth are we to make of The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, last night’s offering from Panorama? Here are a few things that struck me.

First of all, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was someone I had heard of before now, so unveiling her was hardly the great revealation that it claimed to be. She was an expert on Husserl, which funnily enough the programme forgot to mention. Husserl was the founder of phenomenonology, a philosophical movement to which St John Paul was devoted, as was St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). But trying to explain just what attracted these intellectuals to phenomenology in a 30 minute programme on television was perhaps beyond even the skills of the great Edward Stourton or his academic guests such as Prof Eamon Duffy. The programme was far more interested in hinting that these two intellectuals were attracted to each other rather than some dull philosopher of whom Joe Public has not heard.

The second thing that struck me was this: John Paul II was a great all-rounder. He was an intellectual of the first calibre; he had enormous charisma; he was a sportsman and outdoorsman; he was a man of prayer; he was unfairly good-looking as a young man, and even in later life; he loved people, and was surrounded by friends all his life. Into this kaleidoscope of a life fitted Prof Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, which was hardly unusual. The programme made passing reference to at least one other lifelong female friend, Wanda Poltawska, who until now has often been thought of as his closest female friend.

Dr Poltawska, another intellectual, had a very interesting life and is generally credited with being a huge influence on the Pope. Incidentally, they exchanged numerous letters. So Anna-Teresa, while privileged in her friendship with the Saint, was hardly alone.

Thirdly, all saints have friends, don’t they, and these friends are usually people of both sexes. In fact the saints are often people who have a genius for friendship, as St John Paul II evidently had. One can think of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, St Francis and St Clare, Padre Pio and his numerous devotees and followers, to whom he was close. Not to have friends would mark a person out as strange. It is both saintly and human to love the company of one’s fellow human beings. It was certainly one of the marks of Jesus Christ. St Thomas expresses it thus:

In suprémæ nocte coenæ
Recúmbens cum frátribus
Observáta lege plene
Cibis in legálibus,
Cibum turbæ duodénæ
Se dat suis mánibus.

This can be Englished thus, though nothing quite has the same force as that lovely expression “recumbens cum fratribus”:

On the night of that Last Supper,
Seated with His chosen band,
He, the Paschal Victim eating,
First fulfils the Law’s command;
Then as Food to all his brethren
Gives Himself with His own Hand.

The Eucharist, the summit of Christian life, is about friendship, among other things: God’s friendship with us, and our friendship with each other. Isn’t it reassuring to know that St John Paul II was truly human, as all saints are, for grace always builds on nature and brings it to perfection? He loved his fellow human beings with exquisite charity, which is the one major point that his rather silly programme neglected to stress.