I recently blogged about a book that moved me greatly: Stories about Saint John Paul II, by Wlodzimierz Redzioch, published by Ignatius Press. The book gave rise to many questions in my mind, so I contacted the author to put them to him. At first I wanted to know what had given him such a good idea – to interview the close friends and co-workers of the late pope while the memory of him is still fresh in people’s hearts.
Redzioch told me that for 25 years he had lived close to John Paul II. “In 1980 I worked at the Centre for Polish pilgrims in Rome and from 1981 for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.” The death of the Holy Father who had been his “spiritual father and a point of reference” all these years “left a great void”. The book, a collection of the most significant interviews he had made with the Polish friends of the pope, as well as others working for him in the Vatican, was conceived as a way of filling this void.
I tell Redzioch that I was glad to see he began his book with the testimony of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – but how did he manage to obtain an interview with him? He replies that when the book was almost complete he realised he had not consulted the late pope’s “most close and trusted collaborator” – Cardinal Ratzinger. He admits: “At first I was perplexed to ask the Pope Emeritus for a contribution, out of respect for his decision to remain ‘cloistered’ in silence at the Vatican Mater Ecclesiae monastery. But I realised that without the testimony of the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the book would have been incomplete. So I persevered. Now we can read his beautiful text – profound, moving and unique; unique because it was the only interview he granted after his resignation.”
I ask Redzioch if, as a fellow Pole, he had known the late pope personally. He points out to me that under Communism the regime “tried to isolate the faithful from their pastors. I knew Cardinal Wojtyla mostly as a contributor to the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. But in Rome, living in the Centre for Polish pilgrims, I had the good fortune to meet old friends of the pope from Krakow and I learned a lot about Karol Wojtyla from them. Also from Cardinal Deskur, his friend since their seminary days.”
Redzioch recalls that living at the Polish Pilgrims’ Centre he had the privilege of accompanying Polish pilgrims to papal audiences. Referring to Pope Benedict’s interview, he tells me that John Paul II “emanated an extraordinary human warmth. And he combined that warmth with a rare ability to listen and to understand another person”. Redzioch still has before his eyes “his smiling, friendly face” and suggests that, like the faces of so many saints, “it reflected the light of Christ.” Meeting John Paul II “always left traces in people – even those who were non-believers.”
He emphasises to me that he discovered the priestly side to the pope during Mass in his private chapel in the Vatican: “To see [him] praying and celebrating Mass was a truly unique experience; they were at the centre of his life.” Apparently the first rule in the papal apartments “was not to disturb the pope when he prayed. All other things could wait.” Redzioch is certain that “his mystical relationship with God was the source of his faith, strength and joy in the midst of the great problems he had to face.”
Nonetheless, he is keen to point out that this mystical side was combined with a great sense of humour: “The Pope liked to laugh and was a man who enjoyed good company.”
I am curious to find out which of his many interviewees impressed him most. In total he asked 250 questions and received 250 answers. “In this way a portrait of an unforgettable man was created … But I cannot deny that the interview with the Pope Emeritus impressed me a lot.” He quotes Pope Benedict: “I felt strongly the human charm that emanated from him and, from the way he prayed, I sensed how profoundly united he was to God.”
For Pope Benedict it was clear that the Holy Father was a saint. “[He] did not seek applause, nor did he ever look round anxiously, wondering how his decisions would be received. He acted on the basis of his faith and his insight and was willing to suffer blows. The courage of the truth is in my view a first-class criterion of his sanctity.”
Summing up his memories, Pope Benedict had told Redzioch that they are “full of gratitude. I could not imitate him and did not have to, but I tried to carry on his heritage as best I could. And so I am quite sure that even today his kindness accompanies me and his blessing protects me.”
What particular anecdotes of the late Holy Father particularly struck him? Referring to Cardinal Deskur, the Pope’s friend from Krakow, Redzioch singles out the story that had also struck me when I read his book: that someone had written on Karol Wojtyla’s door in the seminary, “Wojtyla: a future saint.”
But, despite his evident holiness and great gifts, was John Paul II made a saint too quickly? Redzioch is firm on this point, quoting Cardinal Angelo Amato who was the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the saints during the process that eventually canonised the late Pope: “Someone might object that the process was conducted hastily…but that was not the case. On the contrary, precisely out of respect for the Pope, we did things correctly and scrupulously, in order to avoid future complaints of negligence.”
Redzioch reminds me that three million people queued to pay their respects to the Holy Father after his death and over a million people attended his funeral. “And the banners with ‘Santo Subito’ confirmed the reputation of holiness that surrounded the late pope.”
Having listened to all these comments, I ask him what attribute of the pope has influenced him most. He replies without hesitation: “The most important role of every pope is to strengthen the faith of every believer. And John Paul II succeeded in enabling millions of people to maintain or to rediscover their faith in Jesus Christ. In this way he succeeded in putting the brakes on the secularisation of the Western world. For me, personally, his faith was the greatest help in my life, as a believer and as a man.”
Finally, I want to know about John Paul II’s legacy today in Poland. Redzioch says that he is seen “as the greatest son of Poland. He largely formed the consciences of at least two generations of Poles”. He adds: “But now, a new generation is growing up which has not known him directly. With my book I want to help people to rediscover this man, this great pope, also a great saint, whose faith is an example for us to follow.”
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