Poland and the Pope; Shedding New Light on John Paul II's Views

By Nagorski, Andrew | Newsweek International, October 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Poland and the Pope; Shedding New Light on John Paul II's Views


Nagorski, Andrew, Newsweek International


Byline: Andrew Nagorski

John Paul II made no secret of his intense interest in the political upheavals and religious controversies in his native Poland. But a book of his private correspondence about to be published in Poland demonstrates an astonishing attention to detail--and an acute sensitivity to anything he saw as a departure from church teachings. In "John Paul II: Greetings and Blessings," Marek Skwarnicki, a well-known Roman Catholic writer in Cracow, makes public the letters he received from John Paul through his entire papacy, right up until two weeks before his death. At the same time, a previously unpublished rare 1988 interview with the pope provides new insights into his frame of mind as the Polish communist regime began to crack. Together, these two new pieces of evidence provide a fuller portrait of John Paul and help explain his complicated feelings about his country.

The early letters in Skwarnicki's book contain frequent reminders of the pope's concerns for those activists--in many cases, personal friends--who were persecuted after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime imposed martial law in 1981, hoping to crush the Solidarity movement. The letters in his final years are dominated by frequent news of illnesses and deaths of common acquaintances. His last letter makes clear the end is near. "Everything is in the hands of God," he wrote.

But the most revealing letters are from the 1990s, when the role of the church in a newly free Poland divided many of those who had battled the communist system. As a bishop and then cardinal in Cracow, the future pope had written often for Tygodnik Powszechny, a prestigious Catholic weekly with a decidedly independent voice. His letters indicate he continued to read the paper closely once he was installed in Rome. But as younger writers and editors began to replace the generation represented by Skwarnicki, he worried about the publication's liberal leanings. He wrote disapprovingly of its increasing focus on secular issues, and he complained about the frequent use of the term "controversial pontificate" when referring to his rule. While acknowledging that all pontificates are controversial and that the church always needs "ferment," he wrote: "That ferment is the love of the church, and can never be any liberal criticism of the church."

Those misgivings weren't simply a product of the 1990s, when Poles began openly debating such issues as abortion, religious education in public schools and the influence of the church on public policy. …

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