John Paul II and the women in his life
He would not have become a saint if he had not also been thoroughly human
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A trove of letters sent by Pope John Paul II to philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka that has come to light through a BBC documentary has sparked a bushfire of speculation about the nature of their 30-year friendship.
The programme’s presenter, Edward Stourton, is convinced that there’s a romantic love story behind it – at least from her side. However in 1996 Tymienecka told biographers Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi flatly that she “never fell in love with the cardinal”, as Karol Wojtyla already was when the correspondence began in the 1970s. They were both over 50 by then and Tymieniecka was long since married and mother of three children. “How could I fall in love with a middle-aged clergyman?” she said.
The fact is that the whole world (minus a few thin-lipped progressives) fell in love with Pope John Paul II, as we saw so plainly at the end of his life, when tens of thousands kept vigil in St Peters Square as he was dying, and millions streamed past his coffin in the days that followed. In his health and strength he was a colossus, whose spiritual magnetism and huge intelligence made him impossible to ignore.
But he would not have become a saint if he had not also been thoroughly human, a man with a big heart, capable of loving both individually and universally. Love is the sine qua non for sanctity, and the celibate love of John Paul had a special intensity because it had first been given totally to God, purified and expanded there.
Of course he had close friends, some closer than others, women as well as men. Before we ever heard of Professor Tymieniecka there was Dr Wanda Poltawska, a friend from his youth and a survivor of medical experiments at Ravensbrück concentration camp who collaborated with him in defending the dignity of sex and marriage. Her publication of some of their 50-year correspondence after his death also caused a stir. The warm affection and concern they express is very similar to that of the fragments of the other letters just published.
If he loved these women in a special way it was because of common experience (war and assaults on their humanity) their intellectual and personal gifts (he shared with Tymieniecka expertise in phenomenology, a philosophical movement founded by Husserl) and his admiration for what he called “the feminine genius”.
When the book about John Paul II and women is written it would include also the Italian left-wing feminist Maria Antonietta Macciochi, who was among female cultural figures he consulted prior to issuing in 1988 his important Apostolic Letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. Maccioci was to defend that “meditation” -- based as it was on scriptural texts pointing to the complementarity of man and woman – as a document betraying “an unusual love of women”.
Women helped John Paul develop and express his profound “theology of the body”, his answer to the trivialisation of sex and its impact on marriage and the family in society and in the Church itself. Its fearless sexual realism is still repudiated (or simply not understood) by some older Catholics but has caught the imagination of the young.
But if anything is clear from the fragments of his letters to individual women that we have see it is that he wanted to give back to those women. Love is a very battered word today, but for John Paul it meant self-giving – in marriage and friendship, mutual self-giving. This is one of the great themes of his writing on the subject. In admiration and gratitude he gave what he could to his close female friends and collaborators: the deep and strong affection of a pure heart. Our age, which knows so little of purity – or, truth to tell, love -- struggles to understand that.
The first place in his heart, however, went to the woman whom he represented on his coat of arms with a simple M set in one quadrant formed by the Cross. Mary, surely, was the woman in his life, the one who watched over his motherless youth and who formed his piety through the “living Rosary”. All the others took their place beside her.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet
Of the many tributes to US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to appear since his sudden death last weekend – the most touching that I have read comes from fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I suppose it is well known in the States that these two ideological sparring partners have been at the same time “best buddies”.
Though they disagreed on such vital subjects as abortion and gay marriage – and, more to the point, on whether the US Constitution supported a right to either of those things – they both loved opera and delighted in each other’s company – along with family and friends. Here is part of Justice Ginsberg’s generous tribute to “Nino”:
We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my . initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the 'applesauce' and 'argle bargle'—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his 'energetic fervor,' 'astringent intellect,' 'peppery prose, ‘acumen,' and 'affability,' all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp.
Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”
The lesson of this surprising friendship seems to be that friendship is not about finding a replica of oneself, but of finding something to respect and admire in the other. It may not be their ideas. However, when there is a meeting of minds and hearts, that is something very powerful.
And this is what has brought the name of the late pope, Saint John Paul II, into the headlines this week, and caused me to write a few lines about the women in his life.
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