‘Ignas, Ignas, how are you?'
Jerzy Walczak talks to Bishop Ignacy Jez about his friendship with John Paul II.
The oldest Polish bishop Ignacy Jez (93) died on 16 October 2007, the anniversary of John Paul II’s election. He was in the Eternal City on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of Saint Jacek Odrowaz’ death and the Seventh Papal Day. During the Second World War Bishop Jez spent three years in the concentration camp Dachau. He participated in Vatican Council II and became the fist Bishop of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. In July 2007 he celebrated his 93rd birthday and in June he celebrated his 70 years of priesthood. We publish the last interview he gave to ‘Niedziela’ on the occasion of the Papal Day.
Jerzy Walczak: - You were a close friend of the Servant of God John Paul II. How did you get to know him?
Bishop Ignacy Jez: - It began in a very prosaic way. It was in 1955 when I became the Vice-rector of the Silesian Major Seminary, which was located in Krakow. At that time I met Fr Karol Wojtyla for the first time. He lectured at our seminary after the Faculty of Theology had been removed from the Jagiellonian University. Fr Jerzy Stroba was the Rector. One day something happened with Fr Stroba’s right arm and he could not move it. The doctor recommended rehabilitation saying that the best medicine would be rowing during holiday. Fr Stroba inclined me to spend that kind of summer holiday with him. He bought a rubber folding canoe and I bought a tent and a small cooker. Rev. Prof. Wojtyla was our consultant and expert in canoeing. He had wide experience. He had a group of students whom he spent holiday with. Our first canoeing, following the advice of the Cracovians, was on the Brda River, from Przechlewa to Bydgoszcz. We canoed together. We might have had ten journeys. After each summer we shared our experiences with the Cravovians, naturally headed by Prof. Wojtyla. He discussed our trips and informed about the next canoeing adventures on the Krutynia River, or the Drawa River or the Czarna Hancza River. He shared his experiences, lent us his guides, and suggested the trails, which he had already explored with his group.
- How did your friendship begin?
- We deepened our relationship in 1960 when I was ordained bishop. Paul VI appointed me Auxiliary Bishop of Gorzow. We met at the Bishops’ Conference. Bishop Karol Wojtyla was responsible for men’s ministry in the years 1958-60. Knowing that I had been a catechist earlier and the rector of the minor seminary as well as the diocesan moderator of the Marian Sodality in the region of Silesia he told me, ‘Take these young people and I will take the Commission on Families, presided by Bishop Pluta’. Those changes were made. Then we used to meet more frequently and had a closer relationship. I needed his advice and guidelines. I asked him about his youth ministry, who he counted on, who to keep in touch with and whom to avoid. He eagerly shared his opinions about his young men’s ministry. First we were colleagues and then we became friends.
- Were there some more meetings?
- There were more and more opportunities. First, it was the journey to Rome to the Council sessions. We were accommodated in the Polish College there. Afterwards, there were the millennium celebrations during which all bishops, if possible, came to every diocese that organised the celebration. So the ties of our friendship were closer. When he became Archbishop of Krakow our relationships were quite deep. We also met during the meetings of the priests, former prisoners of the concentration camps, the group that the Metropolitan of Krakow had a liking for. When Bishop Kazimierz Majdanski organised a pilgrimage of those priests to Rome it was Archbishop Wojtyla that presided over the Mass in Monte Cassino. The Mass was celebrated in rain. It was him that introduced us to Pope Paul VI during the audience. In 1972 new dioceses were created in Poland. Being Bishop of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg I was presiding over the Commission for Social Communications of the Bishops’ Conference. Every January I went to Zakopane to participate in the sessions of the Commission for Pastoral Ministry, held in the house called ‘Ksiezowka’. The host of those meetings was naturally the Metropolitan of Krakow. The schedule was so prepared that after lunch there was a break till 5.00 p.m. He disappeared during those hours. He took his skis, rushed to the cable line to go up to Kasprowy Wierch and went skiing once or twice. But he was always back before 5.00 p.m. And in the evenings and on some other occasions there was a lot of time for friendly chats, time to share our opinions, experiences or to tell jokes. That lasted till the memorable Monday, 16 October 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope.
- How do you recollect that day?
- During that time the meeting of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) was held in Rome. I was the delegate of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. On Saturday, 14 October, at 5.00 p.m. I arrived at the Polish College in Piazza Remuria where our rooms had been reserved. I could not meet Cardinal Wojtyla to say good-bye. He left for the conclave two hours earlier. On Sunday I went to St Peter’s Square twice to observe the black smoke over the Sistine Chapel. On Monday, at noon I was late in the square from which the Italian were returning. In the evening I stood at the Bernini’s columns on the left, close to via della Conciliazione. At that place one could see well the smoke from the chimney. Suddenly, someone shouted and after a while numerous people shouted, ‘Bianca, bianca!’ Indeed, the smoke over the Sistine Chapel was clearly white. There was no doubt - the Holy Father was elected. Roman believers and tourists began filling St Peter’s Square. They arrived from all sides after having heard the news on the radio of television. After a long time of waiting there was a procession and Cardinal Felici said the words, ‘Anuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!... The Italians react spontaneously, they shout, get noisy, clap their hands. When Cardinal Felici took the floor and said ‘Carolum...’ it was clear for the Italians ‘Confalonieri’, only his first name was Karol. But he did not participate in the conclave because of his old age! General astonishment that such an old man was elected. But Cardinal Felici continued slowly, ‘Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Wojtyla!...’ We clearly heard the Polish sound ‘l’. Our legs bent at the knees. Unbelievable! People’s reactions varied. An Italian woman who was standing next to me said, ‘He is not a black, is he?’ She never heard such a name. She took out ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ in which there were the photographs and names of all the cardinals. And after a while she shouted again, ‘Polacco! Polacco!’ And then the new Holy Father appeared and greeted the gathered people in Italian, ‘Sia lodato Jesu Christo...’ The same Italian woman shouted with joy, ‘Parla italiano!’ And then indeed John Paul II spoke Italian. He told the Italians that he came from a distant country, that his mother tongue was different so he could not speak Italian well. ‘If I make mistakes, please correct me...’ People laughed and clapped their hands. He won the Italians over through his straightforward manner.
The next day, on Tuesday, another news surprised the Italians. The Holy Father went to the Gemelli clinic to visit Bishop Andrzej Deskur who fell suddenly ill. For the Italians it was something extraordinary. They saw it as a big event. The following day I got convinced that his pontificate was going to be unique. When I came back after lunch in the College I was told that I would be invited to dine with the Holy Father. I said, ‘Please make jokes at someone else and not at me. How can some bishop from Koszalin dine with the Pope? You must be joking’. ‘But this is true’, Rector Michalik tried to convince me. Fr Dziwisz phoned me and said that I was to go to the Vatican to eat supper there. That was amazing news. In fact, a driver - the same who drove Cardinal Wojtyla to the conclave - took me to the Vatican in the evening. Fr Dziwisz went down using the lift and we went to the apartments of the Holy Father. I could see another person: Bishop Szczepan Wesoly was invited as well. It turned out that only two Polish bishops were in Rome at that time: Bishop Wesoly and myself. And the Holy Father wanted to meet us. Something unique! After praying we sat at the table and ...nothing. We were speechless. The Holy Father looked at us and said, ‘Why are you so silent?’ I answered, ‘Holy Father, we can see everything, the white cassock, the white zucchetto. Then we realised that the Holy Father did not know what had happened down there, in St Peter’s Square, what people’s reactions to the newly elected pope were, how they experienced that, what their first opinions were. He could not have possible known that. So we began telling him about the reactions. When I mentioned that Italian woman the Holy Father laughed loudly. That dinner was a sign for us how much his style and ways of his pontificate would differ from the previous ones.
- Your close friendship continued...
- Eighteen years of contacts before his pontificate, between 1960-1978, at first it was acquaintance, then comradeship and friendship. Cardinal Wojtyla always called me ‘Ignas’, and so did he when he was the Pope. Till the end of his pontificate. I addressed him ‘Holy Father’, it would have been improper to call him ‘Karol.’ We met on many occasions: during his pilgrimages to his Homeland, the celebrations in Rome or our ‘ad limina Apostolorum’ visits to the Vatican. There were such meetings until I was 75 years old, on 31 July 1989. In accordance with the Code of Canon Law I handed in my resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. John Paul II said then, ‘Ignas, wait for me!’
- When was it?
- It was Saturday, 1 June 1991, when the fourth pilgrimage of the Holy Father to our Homeland began in Koszalin. It was an extraordinary event for us. In the morning John Paul II blessed our new major seminary and after lunch he came to Gora Chelmska where he blessed the sanctuary of the Our Lady Triply Mysterious. In his memorable homily the Holy Father began his wonderful teaching concerning the Decalogue. He compared Gora Chelmska to Mount Sinai that Moses descended carrying the Ten Commandments from God. On Sunday, 2 June, there was a memorable meeting of the Pope with the Polish army. Before the departure Fr Dziwisz said unexpectedly, ‘You will also fly with us to Rzeszow’. I was unprepared but I went aboard the plane and flew with John Paul II. Afterwards my chaplain came by car to Rzeszow and brought everything I needed so that I could accompany the Holy Father in his pilgrimage until the very end, i.e. his departure from Krakow-Balice. His every homily on the Decalogue was special. For me the most moving one was the homily delivered in Kielce when the storm came. John Paul II was just speaking about family and used very emotional words. He even got excited speaking, ‘This is my land! This is my mother! And therefore, I have the right to say these words.’
That memorable papal visit was the climax of my almost twenty years of shepherding in the Diocese of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. On 1 February 1992 the Holy Father accepted my resignation, which I had sent on 1 August 1989.
- During your retirement you kept meeting John Paul II...
- Bishop Czeslaw Domin became the Metropolitan of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. When he was to pay ‘ad limina Apostolorum’ visit to Rome he told me, ‘Let us go together. You made the reports. When I am asked for some details in the congregation I will not know what to answer. We will do better together.’ Thanks to that I had another opportunity to visit John Paul II and meet him. Then when I came to Rome as Bishop Emeritus I always had the opportunity to meet the Pope in the Vatican. Archbishop Dziwisz invited me for lunch on behalf of the Pope. We talked freely like we used to as friends. That was till the end of his life. John Paul II always greeted me, ‘Ignas, Ignas, how are you? As long as you smile you are well. Ignas, what are you going to tell me?’ I told him that as a retired man I had no problems to discuss with the Holy Father as the Head of the Church. I brought only new anecdotes and jokes. John Paul II, known for his sense of humour, smiled and said, ‘Well, Ignas, do tell me these jokes!’ And I told him without any hesitance various stories and anecdotes, which he wholeheartedly laughed at.
- John Paul II called you ‘the smiling bishop’. When was that?
- It was during his first pilgrimage to our Homeland in 1979. At the airport in Gniezno the Holy Father was saying good-bye to every bishop. When he approached me he said to the gathered bishops, ‘We had ‘the smiling Pope’ in Rome and now you have ‘the smiling bishop’ here.’ That definition accompanied me for a long time. I was proud of it because it was the Holy Father himself that described me like that. Until now I have been proud of this name and am extremely glad.
- In his book ‘Rise, let us be on our way!’ John Paul II wrote about his friendship with you...
- John Paul II wrote that he had three bishops as friends: Pluta, Stroba and Jez. In his book he testified that we entered his way as friends. He entered our ways as our friend and then as the Head of the Church and Vicar of Christ the Lord. That was a wonderful, unique friendship with the most important person in the Church. For me that friendship was an inner enrichment and an enrichment of my bishop’s ministry.
- Your last meeting with John Paul II was...
- It was in January 2005. On Sunday, 23 January, I was invited to have lunch with the Holy Father. Three days later, on Wednesday 26 February, there was the audience in the Vatican. John Paul II was feeling well, he was active in the conversation, he smiled and joked as usual. I did not know that the meeting was going to be our last one. I did not think so even for a while. For me his death was extremely painful since we were very close friends. I accepted it as the will of the Divine Providence. I have always accepted God’s will and have trusted him without any limits. My heart is full of simple faith and hope that death does not end everything, that we will meet again and enter into long friendship again. My wonderful friendship with the Holy Father John Paul II was the most beautiful chapter of my priestly way of life.