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Papal letters raise issues around clerical friendships with women

  • One of the letters from Pope John Paul II to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, from the collection at the National Library of Poland in Warsaw (Newscom/EPA/Pawel Supernak)
  • Wanda Poltawska speaks during a February 2009 press conference in Warsaw, Poland, presenting her book recollecting her family's relationship with Pope John Paul II. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

When the British Broadcasting Corp. ran a TV documentary on St. John Paul II's intimate friendship with a married philosopher, it revealed an intense subplot to his complex and remarkable life.

The mid-February report, "The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II," made by Catholic presenter Edward Stourton, touched off debates on the wisdom and propriety of the pope's conduct. But it also threw light on the realities of clerical celibacy -- and on the kind of relationships Catholic clergy can and should have with women.

The then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla met Polish-born Professor Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka at his see of Krakow, Poland, in summer 1973, after she'd written to congratulate him on his philosophical tract Osoba i Czyn ("Person and Act"). They agreed to collaborate on an English-language edition, which was published in 1979 as The Acting Person after he became pope.

Tymieniecka had studied Polish literature, like Wojtyla, at Krakow's Jagiellonian University after the wartime Nazi occupation. She went on to obtain degrees from the Paris Sorbonne University and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Moving to the U.S. in 1954, she taught at Berkeley, Oregon State, Yale, and Pennsylvania State universities. She married and had three children with Hendrik Houthakker, an economics professor at Stanford and Harvard who later advised President Richard Nixon.

Yet the 1973 Krakow encounter began an intense relationship, carried on in letters sent by circuitous routes to avoid the prying eyes of Poland's secret police. It also developed regular meetings, such as in 1976, when Wojtyla stayed at Tymieniecka's home in Pomfret, Vt., on a U.S. visit, during which she arranged meetings with the cardinals who would help elect him two years later.

They camped and skied together; and by the autumn 1974, when he was in Rome for a Synod of Bishops, Wojtyla was telling Tymieniecka that he found her letters "so meaningful and deeply personal," but also raising issues that "are too difficult for me to write about."

"It seems that, at some point in the months that followed, Anna-Teresa declared her love for him," Stourton told Britain's Daily Telegraph. "The way Cardinal Wojtyla responded provides an important insight into his providential view of his own destiny. He believed her presence in his life was a God-given gift, and that the relationship was a kind of vocation."

'The gift of a person'

However Wojtyla interpreted it, the relationship with Tymieniecka has long been known.

Italian writer and politician Rocco Buttiglione acknowledged Tymieniecka's influence on the pope's thinking 30 years ago, while George Huntston Williams of Harvard's Divinity School highlighted their close links as early as 1981 in The Mind of John Paul II.

Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein went further in His Holiness, published in 1996 with Italian sidekick Marco Politi, interviewing Tymieniecka and devoting 17 pages to her "crucial role" in Wojtyla's private life.

Although Stourton gained access to three decades' correspondence, he was only allowed to see the pope's letters, not Tymieniecka's. But he believes it is possible, even so, to retrace the closeness that developed between them.

In subsequent correspondence, Wojtyla told Tymieniecka he would "not have dared act like this" had he not believed divine grace was guiding their relationship. But he could find "no words," he added, when she complained about "being torn apart."

"Once -- I remember exactly when and where -- I heard these words, 'I belong to you,' " he wrote. "For me, first of all, the gift of a person resonated in them. I was afraid of this gift; but I knew from the beginning, and I know still better and better now, that I have to accept this gift as a gift from heaven."

When Wojtyla became pope in October 1978, he told Tymieniecka that he wished to continue the relationship. She was one of few people allowed to his Gemelli Clinic bedside when he was shot in May 1981, and when John Paul was suffering from Parkinson's disease in his final years, Stourton believes Tymieniecka provided key emotional support.

"The two swapped memories in the manner of a couple with a long-shared past," the BBC presenter told the Telegraph. "After his final trip to Poland in 2002, he wrote to her of 'our mutual homeland, so many places where we met, where we had conversations so important to us, where we experienced the beauty of God's presence.' "

In 2008, three years after the pope's death, to the apparent anger of some church officials, Tymieniecka sold the letters, running to some 700, to Poland's National Library.

In a Feb. 25 report, the Fakty daily said the purchase had been made without public announcement for a fee of 10.8 million zlotys (US$2.7 million), although both Poland's Culture Ministry and the library director, Tomasz Makowski, have refused to release further information.

Tymieniecka's neighbor and executor, William Smith, told the BBC she had sold the collection to raise money for her family. But it seems clear she wished the long friendship to be recorded and known. This had proved difficult, since evidence suggests powerful figures in the Vatican and Polish church have sought to expunge Tymieniecka from John Paul II's life story.

She was relegated to a dismissive footnote in the magisterial but selective 1999 papal biography Witness to Hope by George Weigel, who bitterly condemned the BBC's decision to publicize the letters.

Meanwhile, she was not even mentioned in A Life With Karol, a 2007 memoir by the pope's former secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who observed the relationship at close quarters, or in He Liked Tuesdays Best, a book of reminiscences by another ex-secretary, Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki.

"Anyone who lived close to John Paul II knows well there was no place in his life for any seeking out of the bad," Dziwisz said in Krakow archdiocese statement before the BBC film aired. "He was a free and transparent person, who had no complexes because he was chaste and respected every person in every situation of his life."

Poland's tightly controlled Catholic media also pitched in with denunciations, with the Gosc Niedzielny weekly accusing the BBC of "false suggestions" and the Krakow-based Tygodnik Powszechny weekly, which once counted Wojtyla as a columnist, insisting the documentary contained "numerous non sequiturs and broken threads."

But not everyone has been so dismissive.

A Polish former provincial of the Rome-based Marian order, Fr. Adam Boniecki, agrees it was "quite possible" Tymieniecka was in love with the pope, telling Agence France-Presse that she was "most likely not alone."

Meanwhile, a Catholic presenter with Polish Radio predicted the BBC's "beautiful, moving film" could even "change for the better" the way many Poles viewed the pope.

"The official lives of saints have been censored by the church for centuries, and all signs of their human reflexes falsified," Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska told NCR. "But the pope himself said he never had any problems or temptations with regard to celibacy. I think he treated the women he met in his life with great friendship and saw no reason, even as pope, to break off his acquaintance with them."

This, curiously, may be close to the reaction of Pope Francis himself. Francis told journalists aboard his flight from Mexico on Feb. 17 that he was aware of the "close friendship" between John Paul and Tymieniecka, and that he believed any man failing to have a "good friendship with a woman" was "missing something."

Being friends with women is "not a sin," Francis added, and John Paul had been capable of a "healthy, holy friendship with a woman."

Spiritual correspondence

One papal relationship that was certainly genuine, and came close to rivalling Tymieniecka's, was with Wanda Poltawska, a Krakow psychiatrist who advised John Paul on health and family matters. Even this, however, has encountered mixed reactions.

When Poltawska's reminiscences, Beskidzkie Rekolekcje ("Retreats in Beskidy"), was launched in 2009, the Polish Bishops' Conference's president, Archbishop Jozef Michalik, lauded it in a glowing preface as a "hymn to the glory of the Creator and nature," enthusing that it revealed more about the pope's spiritual life than any previous book.

Just two months later, when Italy's La Stampa daily wrote about the 576-page work, the 87-year-old concentration camp survivor faced a very different reception.

"Poltawska presents herself as someone important, usurping for herself a special relationship and link which didn't really exist," the newspaper was assured by Dziwisz, Wojtyla's former secretary. "She exaggerates with her posturing and pronouncements, while aspects of her conduct are misplaced and contrived. It's reprehensible and improper to put private documents into circulation."

Dziwisz was alarmed by La Stampa's suggestion that the book could affect John Paul's beatification process. Yet there were hints of personal jealousy, too. Dziwisz and other prelates seemed to be wondering: How could the late, great pope have revealed so much of himself, not to top theologians or archbishops, but to a frail, obscure grandmother?

Born in Lublin, Poltawska studied medicine after surviving the war, and got to know Wojtyla in 1950s Krakow after he heard her confession. She went on to work with him on abortion and contraception, accompanying him on hiking and camping trips, and corresponding on spiritual and religious topics.

When Poltawska, now with four young children, was diagnosed with cancer in 1962, then-Bishop Wojtyla sent a request for prayers to Padre Pio, whom he would canonize in 2002, and wrote again to the Italian mystic to thank him when she recovered.

Meanwhile, in numerous letters, affectionately signed "Brat" ("Brother"), the future pope told Poltawska about his spiritual development, crediting her with nurturing his thoughts on family values and the "theology of the body."

As a cardinal, he continued to exchange prayers and meditations with her, recounting over breakfast during a 1978 mountain holiday that he had dreamed he saw the late Pope Paul VI "beckoning to me."

Two months later, after his election as pope, he told Poltawska he wished to "go further" with her and would ensure they stayed in touch "in the altered scheme of things" by declaring her one of his personal experts.

"You've followed my priesthood step by step and participated for so many years in uncovering its meanings and values," John Paul wrote. "You can't say you don't now see 'any place' for yourself."

Besides directing a new Family Institute at Krakow University's Theology Faculty, Poltawska lectured at Rome's Lateran University. She and her husband, Andrzej, became members of a new Pontifical Council for the Family in 1983, while she also joined the Pontifical Academy for Life and worked with the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

Throughout the period, she wrote descriptions for the pope, now "closed up in the Vatican," of the hills and valleys of southern Poland, and took family members on holiday each May to his summer residence. Photos in her book show Poltawska's grandchildren playing with plastic boats in the Castel Gandolfo fountain, and the pope relaxing over tea with his clerical collar undone.

In the final pages, Poltawska describes how she read to the dying pope at his bedside in Rome's Gemelli Clinic, listing the classic Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz and parts of John Paul's own Memory and Identity. The pope died in his Vatican apartment, Poltawska says, when she was on the final page of The Free City by Polish writer Mieczyslaw Jalowiecki.

Despite this, Poltawska was again not even mentioned in Dziwisz's A Life With Karol and confined to three curt references in Weigel's vast biography.

The advice of women

Some observers think a serious rethink is needed -- and that the possibility of celibate but close relationships between priests and women should be accepted as a reality. Many senior Catholic churchmen have had intense friendships with female companions, they point out, while some have experienced married life.

Westminster, England, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-92), an architect of papal infallibility, had been widowed before becoming a priest, and acknowledged on his deathbed how he owed all his good deeds in life to his "dearest wife."

Kingston, Ontario, Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837) had also been married before ordination, and buried his own daughter, Mary Lucy, in his Rome church, San Marcello al Corso, when she died in 1831.

Speaking to journalists on Feb. 17, Pope Francis said he himself valued the advice of women since they often "look at things in a different way," adding that the church has not understood "the good a woman can do for the life of a priest and the church."

John Paul had not been the only religious leader with close friendships with women, Francis pointed out. He cited the relationships between St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, and between St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. There are signs, even in Poland, that some Catholic prelates may concur.

When Poltawska's Beskidzkie Rekolekcje was published, Michalik, archbishop of Przemysl, welcomed it for revealing John Paul's "way of working as a spiritual guide."

"Only someone unaware of their authentic relationship could have odd thoughts about this," Michalik commented at the book's launch. "These innocent, beautifully crafted letters are a sublimation of the love that is possible between a priest and a woman in an acceptable and genuine attitude. Whoever claims otherwise is light years away from reality."

Poltawska, now 94, says she still has a "whole suitcase" of unpublished letters to and from John Paul, but has been under pressure to destroy them. If she does, it will deprive the church of rich insights into the human sensitivities of a saint, provided more recently by the BBC's investigations into the much-neglected Tymieniecka.

"What is this supposed to be undermining -- the fact that a priest, bishop, cardinal and pope didn't extinguish in himself the capacity for friendship and love?" Boniecki asked in an editorial in Tygodnik Powszechny when Poltawska's book was published. "The deep friendship linking saints with women never diminished their sanctity, just the opposite. Perhaps it's the sick imagination of the commentators, not this beautiful story about friendship, that is the main cause of the problems."

This story appeared in the Mar 11-24, 2016 print issue under the headline: Papal letters raise issues around clerical friendships with women .

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