In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries
By Pope St John Paul II, William Collins, £25
As many will remember, John Paul II’s longtime secretary and confidant, Stanisław Dziwisz, did not burn the “personal notes” left by the late pope, as John Paul had instructed in his will. Rather, Dziwisz, who was named Archbishop of Kraków in 2005 and created cardinal in 2006, saved them because, as he writes in the preface, “they contain significant information about [John Paul’s] life” and “are a key to understanding … his relationship to God, to other men, and to himself.” Dziwisz’s decision was an act of filial piety, even if it was also something of a filial rebellion.
The English publisher would have done well – and the public would have been better served – if the English title of the book had adhered more closely to the Polish original, in which case the book’s title would have been I Am Very Much in God’s Hands: Personal Notes 1962-2003.
The slightly bowdlerised new title is thus somewhat misleading: these are not “diaries” in the sense that John XXIII’s posthumously published Journal of a Soul was a diary – the narrative, over time, of an interior life.
Rather, what John Paul left were just what he said in his will that he had left: “personal notes” – sometimes just fragments of sentences, in which he recorded either key points that particularly struck him on spiritual retreats he made over the course of four decades, or his own reflections on what a retreat-master had said. So anyone buying this book on the assumption that it is similar to Journal of a Soul is likely to be disappointed.
Journal of a Soul revealed Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli – long portrayed in the world press as John XXIII, progressive – to be a man of a deep and very conventional piety, whose spiritual life was redolent of the Counter-Reformation Catholicism in which he was formed.
As I recall, reviewers at the time found this something of a shock, although why anyone would have expected Roncalli to have an interior life like that of, say, a liberal Protestant was, and remains, a mystery. The only readers who will find a similar surprise in John Paul II’s personal notes are those who bought the caricature of him (once dead but now being revived) as some kind of pre-modern mind and spirit.
Those who knew John Paul personally or read him carefully will find nothing terribly new or revealing in these reflections. But they will find ample material that deepens what was already clear about Karol Wojtyła for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. For example, that he was a man intensely driven by a sense of vocation, a priest, bishop and pope who constantly asked himself what God was calling him to do now.
This profound vocational sensibility is perhaps most evident in the notes dating from Wojtyła’s years as a bishop in Kraków, where the reader finds him examining his conscience, on paper, about his relationship to his priests, his people and his friends, and about the rhythm of his work. Everything he did, it seems, was done sub specie aeternitatis: under the gaze of eternity and judgment, anticipating the moment when he would render an account of his stewardship as priest and bishop.
This was not done in any morbid or scrupulous way. Rather, the reader meets in the notes from 1962 through to September 1978 a man overwhelmingly grateful for the vocational gifts he had been given and eager to cooperate with God’s grace in living those gifts for the good of the Church and its people.
That pattern continues into the pontificate, as John Paul II used his annual retreat time, as he used his daily prayer time, as a matrix for thinking and praying through the question, “What should I be doing now – and after that?”
It was, I can testify, a question he kept posing himself to the end, when he came to see in his suffering a way to bear witness to what he had long taught: that the central truths of history are found on the Cross, in Christ’s obedient suffering, and at Easter, where that obedience is vindicated in the Resurrection.
The notes from John Paul’s papal retreats are also interesting for the light they shed on the major Catholic personalities invited by him to give the retreat conferences, an extraordinary cast including Lucas Moreira Neves, OP, Christoph Schönborn, François Xavier Nguyên Văn Thuân, and Francis George, OMI.
Not surprisingly, among the most intriguing are the notes from the Lenten retreat preached by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in February 1983. There, Ratzinger speaks of the Eucharist as an anticipation of the Resurrection (“the transubstantiation of death”), observes that “Christ washes ‘our feet’ every day when we pray ‘forgive us our trespasses’,” and suggests, in a striking way, that “the day of Pentecost already contains the entire history of the Church” in its evangelical essence. Not Journal of a Soul, then.
But the journal notes of an extraordinary soul, open to grace.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and the author (among many other books) of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
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