Opinion & Features

The ‘scandal’ that never was

One of hundreds of letters that Pope John Paul II wrote to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. (AP Photo)

When John Paul II was alive journalists scoured the globe looking for women who had been his lover, wife or companion. They found none because there were none. “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he can see are his pockets,” runs the maxim. Ten years after the pope’s death I believe the BBC spotted potential pickings in the letters he wrote to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, which she sold to Poland’s National Library. The approach was clear: for “the very first time” the corporation would reveal that the pope was the clandestine lover of a married, attractive Polish-American philosopher. “Unearthed” with fanfares, these “secret letters” would “out” the story hidden “by a paranoiac Soviet-style cover up”.

But strangely enough something entirely different emerged in the resulting Panorama programme, a kind of exemplary self-definition of a nudge-wink approach to investigative journalism, an exercise in how to cherry-pick with an agenda. John Paul II and Anna-Teresa were writing in Polish, which was not mentioned. The presenter Ed Stourton’s opening line, to be taken as gospel, was: “I understand … that in the summer of 1975 Anna-Teresa sat down on a park bench by the city walls of Kraków and wrote what can only be described as a love letter.” But Stourton never saw her letters or spoke to her.‘‘You write about being torn apart,” he quoted the pope. “I remember exactly when and where I heard these words, ‘I belong to you’. For me … the gift of a person resonated in them [but] … I have to accept this gift as the gift from heaven.”

How do we know what Anna-Teresa actually meant by “I belong to you”? There were too many unknowns, not least what might be lost or gained in translation, or what else was covered. The angle Stourton pursued, through rather oblique and ambiguous declarations (eg aren’t we all “gifts”?), was of an unending passion, overlaid with erotic energy. John Paul had lost his mother before he made his First Communion. He had warm and close friendships with women, starting with those he had acted with on the stage. Similar in pattern, he had previously met Dr Wanda Półtawska in Częstochowa when he was 36. She was a married Kraków psychiatrist and victim of Ravensbrück, where Nazi doctors injected diseased bacilli into her bone marrow. He developed with her his ideas for his key book Love and Responsibility.

John Paul believed and argued that the sexual drive was a gift from God, and that further, “Man may offer this drive to God exclusively through the vow of virginity”. Like Anna-Teresa on philosophical problems, and possibly even closer to the pope’s position, Wanda helped John Paul to develop his ideas on contraception and chastity, holding that the former was psychologically harmful, led to neurosis and, when it didn’t work, naturally to abortion. She saw him as an absolutely pure person, able to master his reactions fully; both believed that self-discipline and exercise in self-denial helped form chastity.

When Wanda was diagnosed later with terminal cancer John Paul wrote to Padre Pio, asking him to pray for her, and her miraculous cure led to one proof of the latter’s sainthood. Nothing suggests he wasn’t able, also, to master his reactions to Anna-Teresa when they met in their 50s. What the BBC exploited was the much-exercised lingua franca of John Paul’s natural giving personality, expressed on so many different occasions both to human and divine beings. To suggest more, with pictures of the pope in a sweaty T-shirt, and making much of the “deeply intimate” gift of a scapular was absurd attention-seeking.

These innuendos were backed up with dark overtones of a lovelorn pope later isolated in the Vatican (where had the Polish nuns who looked after him gone?). Affectionate photographs of John Paul II and Anna-Teresa on a camping weekend or a skiing holiday were compared to those of “a happily married couple”. We weren’t told who took the snaps, but surely they were Anna-Teresa’s economic professor husband or her children? John Cornwell, the noted John Paul II critic, thought that the Polish Church authorities would castigate the letters as “an occasion of sin”, as bad “as if you’d already done it”. Eamon Duffy cast doubts on whether John Paul should have been canonised.

That John Paul was open in his expression of tender concern for Anna-Teresa was a measure of his power of giving love, also of his uninhibited freedom of expression, which he gave both to men and women throughout his life. I met when writing about him several “high-ranking” Polish ladies (Anna-Teresa in the BBC’s reductive portrait had to be an “aristocrat”) who expressed undying love for the pope. Wherever John Paul II travelled there was love; even a photograph of me with him is a loving picture. That’s what he did, which is why his presence commanded the love and affection of millions: he had what Chesterton said a man must have, “magnanimity of surrender, of which he only catches a glimpse in first love”.

Till his death he kept alive this essence of first love with everyone, which in Anna-Teresa may indeed have provoked a different kind of longing and attachment. Perhaps the Warsaw library, within its rights, was protecting her by refusing to release her letters. When questioned she dismissed such “nonsense”, calling herself “an old-fashioned Polish lady” who considered that “sexuality is not a matter for conversation of any sort”. As well as being an apostle, the pope was a powerful creative genius who, while renouncing this ambition, kept the vision of it in his inner being.

Anna-Teresa, like Wanda before her, on reading over his crowning work The Acting Person, heartened and inspired him “because when my book was discussed in Lublin it was completely torn to shreds”. True, she later fell out with him over this, but it seems evident she may have wanted too much from it for herself.
Undoubtedly there was some erotic component or energy in their contact, albeit not acted upon. But if there hadn’t been, then the deeper sense of being or spirit would not have been awoken. John Paul was never tepid. The Panorama programme could have been profound and searching, exploring the pope’s understanding of the mainspring of human psychology and human will, of which eros (love/desire) is an important part.

The Acting Person and Love and Responsibility show John Paul II at one with his beliefs, his personalistic philosophy; and at one and not afraid of his body (or sex), not alarmed by the subconscious. Confessions of nightmares, of temptations, were part of his communication with God and his priestly colleagues, keenly aware as he was of responsibilities, faithful to commitment. There is good reason to consider his sharing with Anna-Teresa was part of this communication.

Garry O’Connor is the author of Universal Father: A Life of Pope John Paul II (Bloomsbury)