John Paul's aide sheds private light on a public life

Francis X. Rocca

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March 6, 2008

VATICAN CITY -- Nearly three years since his death, Pope John Paul II is on the fast track to sainthood and already acknowledged as one of the monumental figures of the 20th century. Testimony abounds to his holiness and the key role he played in some of the most consequential events of his time.

Now his longtime aide, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, has written a memoir, "A Life With Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship With the Man Who Became Pope," offering a close look at the late pope's private life.

Dziwisz, 68, served as John Paul's private secretary for nearly four decades. Written with Italo-Polish journalist Gian Franco Svidercoschi, the book has already appeared in more than a dozen languages, and has made the best-seller lists in Italy and Poland.

The book hits U.S. stores Tuesday (March 4).

A native Pole like John Paul (born Karol Wojtyla), Dziwisz is now the archbishop of Krakow, a post held by the pope before his election in 1978. Dziwisz was elevated to cardinal in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Dziwisz and Wojtyla first met in 1957, when Dziwisz was a young seminarian. In 1966, three years after Dziwisz was ordained by Wojtyla, the future pope called him as his personal secretary. Dziwisz asked when he should start. "Today will work," Wojtyla replied.

Dziwisz was by John Paul's side at all the key moments of his papacy, including the assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, when the author caught the stricken pontiff in his arms, then gave him last rites on the operating table.

After John Paul's recovery, Dziwisz went with him to visit his imprisoned assailant, Mehmet Ali Agca. To the pope's distress, the Turkish gunman did not ask for forgiveness, but wanted only to know: "So why aren't you dead?" Having heard that John Paul attributed his survival to intervention by the Madonna of Fatima, Ali Agca "was afraid that this powerful goddess would avenge herself on him and `get rid of him,'" Dziwisz writes.

John Paul concluded that the leaders of the Soviet Union had ordered his assassination out of fear (ultimately well-founded) that he would inspire an anti-Communist revolution in Poland. "Don't all roads, however disparate they are, lead to the KGB?" Dziwisz writes.

The book has lighter moments, too, including an account of John Paul's surreptitious skiing excursions early in his papacy. Accompanied by a few priests and no bodyguards, the pope rode in the back seat of an ordinary car, with a front-seat passenger holding open a newspaper to shield him from view.
On the slopes, John Paul "was dressed like everyone else: parka, cap, goggles," yet long went unrecognized. "After all, who could imagine that a pope would go skiing?" Dziwisz writes. An astonished 10-year-old boy finally blew the pontiff's cover.
Dziwisz describes the pope's daily life, including his dining habits. "He wouldn't take much, but he would try everything," though he had a weakness for Italian sweets and coffee. His preferences in television viewing included documentaries and the news, "but he wasn't adverse to movies."

For the second half of his 26-year reign, John Paul was increasingly plagued by Parkinson's disease and other ailments, and actually considered resigning on his 80th birthday in the year 2000. Though he decided against it, Dziwisz writes, he "did work out a procedure for resigning should he no longer be able to carry out his papal mission."
The cardinal's account of John Paul's last hours is filled with poignant detail. A picture of the pope's mother and father sat on his nightstand. He died listening to a priest read from the Gospel of John. Afterward, those present sang a hymn of praise, not mourning.

"We wanted to thank God for the gift he had given us," Dziwisz writes, "the gift of the person of the Holy Father, of Karol Wojtyla."

John Paul's aide sheds private light on a public life
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c. 2008 Religion News Service

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