We received an excellent present for the canonization of John Paul II from the Paulines who had edited a Polish biography of the Holy Father in Polish, written by an Italian historian and publicist Andrea Riccardo. His work should be placed on a par with the exemplary monograph by George Weigl, considered as the best one so far. The work of Riccardi will make us verify the opinion that we know nearly everything about John Paul II. It is impossible to get to know the work of the Polish Pope without reading this book.

There are many attributes of the book, apart from the literary ones (it is nice to read). The Italian historian showed in a fascinating way, how Karol Wojtyła was reaching his supreme dignity in the Catholic Church. Unlike any other biographer, he outlined the background of the election of the Polish Pope thoroughly and attractively, providing an analysis of the crisis at that time, in which the Catholic Church was, quoting discussions among cardinals, publicists and politicians and explaining why there ‘had to’ be the end of the ‘Italian papacy’. Riccardi introduces many unknown facts into the knowledge about pontificate, like the fact that spokesmen of the election of the archbishop in Kraków into a pope were great Brazilian cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, and also cardinal Pietro Palazzini considered as conservative, who blamed Paul VI for the crisis in the Church. The author is revealing a secret from time to time, giving spicy details, like the one that the first personal speech of John Paul II to cardinals on 18 October 1978, to the request of the State Secretariat was omitted in an official text because it was not in a way ‘suitable for the pope’. Secret Italian services, which were controlling the pontificate from the beginning, noted that the new Pope was not going to be subjected to the dictatorship of the Curia.

Pope of the spiritual reform

As Riccardi proves, the election of cardinal Karol Wojtyła was a solution against a trap, in which the Church after Paul IV was: on the one hand, the trap was marked with the progressing interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, and, on the other hand – traditionalist temptation rejecting its heritage. Whereas, it was difficult to include Wojtyła into the category of progressivists or into the group of conservatists. his surname, as Riccardi noted, ‘took on the significance during the conclave as an answer to the crisis of Catholicism, because it meant both the continuity of Catholicism and the novelty of the Vatican Council’. This situation of October 1978 is mentioned by Benedict XVI in an interview in the following way: ‘At the moment of his election, a real problem he was to face was helping the Church out of the crisis in those years. It was necessary to show great trustfulness to the Second Vatican Council. It was necessary to purify the perception of the Vatican Council. In the first place it was necessary to introduce not only structural reform, but rather deep spiritual reform’. Being aware of these words, Riccardi devoted much attention to the spiritual dimension of the pontificate of John Paul II and gave much evidence for the thesis that his ‘heart’ was the Pope’s faith, who, despite being ill, in 2003 spoke fervently to accredited diplomats in the Holy See: ‘But everything can be changed. Everyone can develop his own potential of faith. So, it is possible to change the course of events’.

Riccardi shows John Paul II as the first ‘global pope’, a person who penetrated various historical epochs. The first period of his pontificate to the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 was in the atmosphere of the cold war. Later there was a period in which on the rubbles of the two-polar world the reality of globalization was getting stronger. The Pope perceived difficulties connected with this process, both the ones related to the common market, as well as the ones concerning the clash between religions and civilizations, therefore, he promoted a dialogue so much.

Polishness of the Pope

For a Polish reader, the author’s notes about Polishness of the Pope will be significant. He is inclined to the view of John Paul II, who considered his Polish origin as providential. Riccardi notes that Italian popes ‘denationalized themselves’. Pius XII, accepting the Italians, spoke about ‘their’ homeland, and Paul VI, despite his many journeys all over Italy, never visited his home Brescia or the archdiocese of Milan. John Paul II behaved completely differently, and he always emphasized his Polishness, he spoke and wrote about himself in the documents: ‘I – the son of the Polish land’. He mostly visited his homeland among other countries, he often emphasized his spiritual, cultural and religious heritage brought from Poland.

Riccardi thinks that Polishness of the Pope stigmatized his pontificate – he noticed the influence of the Polish Romanticism on John Paul’s II courageous and symbolic gestures or giving the universal meaning to ideas and cult of Divine Mercifulness, initiated by the Polish saint sister Faustyna.

The biographer notes that according to what John Paul II said in June 1979 in Gniezno, due to the election of him into the successor of St. Peter, not only Poland but also the whole Slavic world ‘entered papacy’. It means – Riccardi concludes – ‘not only a special care of the Pope about the Slavic world, but he also shows that the experience of the Polish and Slavic Churches has something to give to the universal Church’. Even in changing the form of John Paul II into ‘I’ – Paul VI used the form ‘we’ in his speeches and personal talks – Riccardi notices, beside the subjectivity of the personal testimony of Karol Wojtyła, his Slavic character marked with painful history of Poland.

However, Polishness of the Pope, especially in the beginning period of his pontificate, was a problem in Italy and in Western Europe. Cardinal Anastasio Alberto Ballestrero, the chairman of the Italian Episcopal Conference used to say ‘with anxiety and irony’: ‘Now, Pope may not order us to become Poles’. He said it after John Paul II, seeing crowds at Jasna Góra in June 1979, sighed in his presence: ‘We would wish so in our beautiful Italy’.

Whereas another Italian cardinal, not agreeing in something with John Paul II, reacted even impolitely: ‘Holy Father, it is not Poland here!’.

If I had got engaged in the matters in the Curia, I would not have done many things

A great value of the book is the fact that it was not created ‘onto the order’ because the author was collecting materials throughout his pontificate and even after death of John Paul II, because he had just finished his work before the canonization of the Polish Pope. In this respect he prevailed other biographers who had created monographs of John Paul II for a few years, and the quicker ones – even a few months. It is out of any doubt that Riccardi, besides Jacek Moskwa, the author of a wide biography of the Polish Pope, got to know and described the pontificate of the Saint Pope. And he dominates among his colleagues definitely in the fact that as an Italian man, he had the Holy Father near him all the time, and he could ask him questions. Thanks to it, we gain important explanations directly from John Paul II. Riccardi writes that the Pope used the Roman Curia and paid attention to it, but he was aware that he was not a reformer of this institution. Soon after that, the author quotes a sentence which he heard from the Holy Father and which explains everything: ‘If I had paid attention to it, I would not have done this all, what I did in my life’.

Although the Pope left us enormous rich teaching in all important dogmatic, moral and social issues, he was aware that he was not able to meet all problems and expectations. Being asked by a Vatican diplomat – cardinal Achille Silvestrini about the collegiality in managing the Church, John Paul II admitted honestly: ‘Yes, the collegiality should be used. It would be important especially for Orthodox Churches. But I cannot do it. It will be done by my successor’. But the significance of the collegiality of bishops did not change during the pontificate of Benedict XVI either, which shows how difficult problem it is. John Paul II had simply different priorities.

Wojtyła – Moses of the Church?

Riccardi finishes his book in this way: ‘Pope Wojtyła led us to the freedom from fears, conditions, from the feeling of decadence. He brought his people into a new context, into the world of XXI century. Also his leadership was special, very personal and charismatic for papacy. Was he Moses for the Church? It is difficult to close such complicated and contemporary biography within the biblical image, which has great charm. An unusual personality of Wojtyła stigmatized a mark of great significance, filled in deficiencies of institution and people (…). John Paul II remains a great personality of history. He is a saint for the Church and believers’.

Andrea Riccardi presented the phenomenon of Karol Wojtyła masterly, not omitting any important thread in his personality or work. The Italian historian gave us a bunch of keys allowing us to get to know and understand the pontificate of the Great Pope.


"Niedziela" 15/2014

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