Living your life like Karol Wojtyla

Rev. Msgr. Ireneusz Skubis talks to Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Senior Primate of Poland, about the life of John Paul II and his service to Christ's Church. Warsaw, 12 April 2011.

REV. MSGR. IRENEUSZ SKUBIS: - Your Eminence, you belong to those lucky people who looked at the life and work of Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and then at the pontificate of the Holy Father John Paul II for years. How was in your opinion the picture of the sanctity of Karol Wojtyla's life formed?

CARDINAL JOZEF GLEMP: - Yes, I was lucky to have met the future Pope many times, e.g. during parish visitations, in the mountains, travelling in the car or helicopter. Of course, my acquaintance with him was not the same as his relationships with the priests from Krakow and then with the Cardinals: Franciszek Macharski or Stanislaw Dziwisz. Nevertheless, as the secretary of Primate Wyszynski, and then as a bishop in the region of Warmia and Poland's Primate I had the possibility to watch the life of Karol Wojtyla - John Paul II. I did not listen to his lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin. Being asked by Cardinal Wyszynski to go to Krakow from time to time I could observe Wojtyla's visits to parishes and his work with the other bishops for the good of the Church in Poland. I mean the sessions of the Polish Bishops' Conference, preparing pastoral letters, etc. Then we worked in the office of the Bishops' Conference and the Secretariat of Poland's Primate.
Then I did not think about his sanctity but I noticed that he was extremely concentrated, good; he could be cheerful and could smile at everybody and at the same time he followed all contemporary problems in Poland. He was an outstanding personality, very much dedicated to the Church and one could feel that.
The formation of Karol Wojtyla's sanctity is a big topic and also a mystery. I saw him celebrate Mass, his concentration on the Eucharist. I saw him pray… Once during our drive from Krakow to Warsaw I saw him suffering from a headache. But he refused to take a pill…
I saw that he constantly thought of pastoral work as concern for people's salvation. He devoted much time to visitations and meetings with people and at the same time, he could fathom huge philosophical or theological spaces. I think that some topics matured during conversations, trips and prayers.

- The late Bishop Stefan Barela told me that when Archbishop August Hlond, who came from Silesia, became cardinal his brother cried, 'Gustlik, ales sztajgnal!' (What a promotion!). Are you surprised with this 'promotion' of Cardinal Wojtyla to the altars?

- When I analyse the life of Cardinal Wojtyla and then Pope John Paul II I must admit that I am not surprised. This 'promotion' was natural and developed very regularly. Lord God gave him unusual intellectual abilities accompanied by great gifts of grace, which he managed to use. His diligence, using every moment for work or for prayer from which he drew extraordinary energy! One could see that in his speeches, numerous documents and appeals. There was a constant growth in Cardinal Wojtyla's life. It was work and collaboration with the gifts Lord God gave him and which he consistently developed. This sanctity could really have served as a model and encouragement to collaborate with God's grace.

- What did in your opinion the relationships between Cardinal Wojtyla and bishops, professors and priests look like?

- Compared with Cardinal Wyszynski and the Polish Bishops' Conference Cardinal Wojtyla was always hushed, concentrated and not distinguishing himself. Cardinal Wyszynski was the leader whereas Cardinal Wojtyla was as if in his shade. We knew well that he had a powerful intellect and it was him that played a great role during the Second Vatican Council and his contribution to the thought and achievements of the Polish Bishops' Conference were enormous. But they were not so much visible.
However, we felt that his personality was unique, especially when we saw his prayers, love of the liturgy, concentration and human approach to every person - I mean us as students and then when I was Cardinal Wyszynski's secretary. He was characterised by kindness, focus on people, looking ahead to what people were to add, and his very good intuitional relationships with his interlocutors.
I think that Cardinal Wojtyla knew his priests and those I met did not hide their affection for their bishop. On the basis of the students' reports I know that he made them seek the truth. His lectures in ethics required attention. He liked his university.

- How can one sketch the relationships between two big personalities: Cardinal Wyszynski, who was a 'prince' of the Church and Cardinal Wojtyla who was very dear to him?

- Both loved the Church. This love was the common point and at the same time, the key to understand that those two people complemented each other and did not conflict with each other. Cardinal Wojtyla loved the Church and understood her more than those who many a time tried to advise Cardinal Wyszynski. Both cardinals shared work: Cardinal Wojtyla was more active outside the Church, especially abroad (in the Vatican and the Polish Diaspora) whereas Cardinal Wyszynski cared for the matters of the Church in Poland. And that was much needed because changes occurred every day and the ruling party created various situations and one had to be watchful. Thus Cardinal Wojtyla could be involved in international issues; he could work in the Vatican congregations and could be dedicated to philosophical analyses.

- In 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla delivered an extremely strong homily during the Corpus Christi procession in Krakow. His words resembled the speeches of Cardinal Wyszynski...

- I do not know those last sermons of Cardinal Wojtyla but I know that though collaboration the mutual thought, responding to the circumstances the Church in Poland found herself in, matured - hence similar contents of their messages. The Polish Bishops' Conference was very united and the adversities were the same. Both cardinals chose the same way and method as well as the arguments they were to present. It is an important observation that their messages were very similar.

- Your Eminence, commencing with the first pilgrimage to Poland you were very close to John Paul II: all visits (except the one in 1979) were held when you were Poland's Primate. Did you notice this extraordinary relationship of the Pope with God?

- Then we focused more on the external expressions of the pilgrimages than on the Pope's attitude. Obviously, there were fears and warnings not to participate en masse in the meetings with the Pope because it was dangerous. We had to find some common platform of understanding between the governor appointed by the communist authorities and the bishop in the places the Pope visited. There were numerous such jobs.
The Pope was very much concerned about his Homeland which in his opinion needed revival and in which he saw some symptoms of revival. He knew that his words would fall on favourable soil. Therefore, he prayed to the Holy Spirit and that prayer was realised after 20 years.
As far as the pastoral attitude of the Pope is concerned all bishops, priests, believers could admire his dedication to people. He came with words that carried salvation and revival in everyday sphere. His whole spirituality was based on human dignity. The Pope could enjoy simple things. He could talk to crowds. His cheerfulness evoked trust. His pastoral eagerness was revealed in that he was consistent in realising his schedule, regardless of his weariness. He was giving himself - the most outstanding feature of his spirituality we could observe during all his pilgrimages.

- One could see that the Holy Father also prayed when he did not move his lips, e.g., when he was observing something, when he was cheerful and smiling. However, the Eucharist was his extraordinary abiding with Lord Jesus…

- The Eucharist was a special experience for the Holy Father both when he celebrated it in his chapel and when he celebrated it for millions. His celebrations in big stadiums, big squares allowed Christ to enter the community of the faithful. Time and space were penetrated by the paschal mystery. Those big Masses with the Holy Father as supernatural events were immersed in the earthy reality. One could notice the Pope's experiences best when his physical condition worsened with time. It seemed that he made supernatural efforts to worship the Eucharistic Kind appearing on the altar. I want to mention adoration, too. After each meal the Holy Father went to some chapel for adoration. And one more thing, the third pilgrimage to Poland and stations of the Eucharistic Congress. I know that the Pope was glad about this Eucharistic accent in many cities.

- It seems that the Holy Father built the idea of patriotism, love of the Homeland not only in the political sense but also in the spiritual, religious sense. His patriotism was a Christian virtue.

- The Pope gave a much deeper meaning to this virtue and showed to the whole world how it could be realised. He was dedicated to the Church in the entire world but he did not neglect anything. For him, inhabitants of Africa, Asia, South America or Europe were people oriented towards salvation. He did his best to explain that aim to them, to surround them by God's mood. But he did not neglect his love of his Homeland. Love of Krakow, love of Poland, love of Warsaw, love of Polish sanctuaries did not diminish his love of the universal Church. He gave an example of real patriotism; he showed that love of one's country did not collide with love of all people. We will always see and learn this love from the Pope.

- You must have had personal contacts with John Paul II, conversations in private. How did you feel in his presence?

- I always felt very natural and John Paul II trusted me. These were talks between a pope and bishop. We knew who we served and what we aimed for. If our conversation concerned difficult matters the Pope explained to the extent he knew the context but at the same time he always listened to his interlocutors knowing the circumstances of given problems. These conversations were edifying, never shocking. They were often held during meals. The Pope often invited people for lunch or dinner and there were working meals. The Pope was glad when I handed him in writing what I intended to speak about. My talks with the Pope concerned what the Church could give to people, i.e., peace, openness to the Word, to God's truth, accepting Christ. The Holy Father did not play any political games. His line was clear: the Church must guard the Good News. It was the simplest approach. Naturally, it had many factors: the priests' approaches, the Catholic Action, the Light-Life Movement and others. But the main vision was always the same: the Church in which Jesus Christ lives and for which he, the Pope, is responsible together with bishops, is our common concern. 'Res nostra agitur' - as for our matter of God we are involved in it with all our being.

- How would you describe the service to the Church in Poland in the pontificate of John Paul II?

- The Pope knew man perfectly well; he knew the possibilities of his strive for perfection within the framework of conscience and responsibility. He knew the Poles' psyche. But above all, he saw Christians in all people; he saw Christ who was growing in them. And thus with great friendship and hope he turned to young people who by nature were very hungry to absorb words. I remember one ceremony when the Pope went through crowds; I saw the guards trying to cover young people because time was pressing and it was commonly known that when the Pope saw young people he would approach them spontaneously. His characteristic was his attitude towards man, whether it was a child, a poor man, a politician, a scientist - it was a human being, the way of the Church.

- You also saw John Paul II getting weaker and weaker. Did you think what happened when we lacked the Pope?

- These were human fears accompanying man when he can see someone very important and dear to him get weaker. I remember the Pope saying that he was older and one step closer to being born for heaven. It was said wonderfully. But being weak, not paying attention to his physical defects, he took enormous efforts, inspired by his great love of God and man. And here we could observe the sanctity of the Pope who did not fear to have a bad visual image but he wanted his whole personality to communicate his message.

- John Paul II went to the Father's house. Then there was a unique funeral and spontaneous shouts 'Santo subito!' Did these words astonish you?

- The shouts 'saint soon!' were not astonishing. They were important signals of the common conviction about the holy life of John Paul II. Some appeals to hasten the beatification process could be heard after the martyr's death of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. I had no doubts about the Pope's sanctity. I was only concerned about the amount of work to investigate the whole legacy of the great pontificate needed in the cause for beatification. This cause does not depend on emotions. The Church is very rational and builds on a certain logic of faith. I knew John Paul II was holy but I also knew we had to wait for its formal announcement.

- On the 100th anniversary of the Polish Pontifical Institute in Rome you said that John Paul II's beatification was a Polish Westerplatte. Can you develop this comparison?

- At Westerplatte John Paul II referred the defence of that place to every believer and his attitude towards responsibility for his/her deeds, for the defence of truth. He said that everyone had his/her own Westerplatte where they could not desert. I mean that we must not avoid difficult duties. The Pope gave us an example of that attitude and we should follow him. We must not avoid difficulties. If they relate to some testimony to the truth we should face them and do good in life. Therefore, Westerplatte is responsibility. And I think that the beatification of John Paul II obliges us to pray to him and also to observe how he, the blessed, realised difficult tasks in his life.

"Niedziela" 18/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: