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John Paul II: The Saint as His Friends Knew Him

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Interview with the Polish journalist who wrote the new book "Stories About Saint John Paul II"

VATICAN CITY — Pope St. John Paul II was one the most influential saints of the twentieth century. And while shaping the history of the Church and the world, he lived among individuals who knew him closely as a spiritual father, colleague and friend.

In a new book entitled, Stories About Saint John Paul II, Polish journalist Wlodzimierz [Vladimir] Redzioch brings together the accounts of the lifelong personal friends of Karol Wojtyla as well as those who collaborated with him most closely in the Vatican, including Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch worked for more than thirty years for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He is the author of several books on the Vatican. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI awarded him the title of Commander of the Equestrian Order of Saint Sylvester, Pope and Martyr.

Aleteia caught up with Redzioch just outside St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday and talked with him about Pope St. John Paul II and his new book. We also asked him what he thought Pope John Paul II would say to the Synod Fathers.

How did you first meet Pope St. John Paul II?

I am an engineer. I studied in Poland. After studying Czestochowa, I also studied African Studies because I wanted to serve as a lay missionary to Africa.

In 1978, I went to Paris to continue studies in engineering, and it was there I learned of the election of John Paul II. Initially, for me, it was a patriotic event. For the first time in the history of the Church, a Polish cardinal became Pope. To tell the truth, during the Communist era it wasn’t that we in Poland knew our pastors and bishops very well. There was censorship; there was no free press.

It happened that two of my priest-friends in Paris were organizing a center for Polish pilgrims on the little street close to St. Peter’s. One of them called me, and said: “We need your help. We need a good person who knows the languages to help us set up this center.” And I said to myself: “This isn’t my profession. I have a whole engineering career ahead of me. What have I got to do with this?”

But during one of these telephone calls, one of the priests said: “Look, Polish history is also unfolding here in Rome.” This made me think. After deliberating over it for a year, I decided to come to Rome.

I began working at the center for Polish pilgrims. As part of my work in the center, I would take the Polish pilgrims to meet the Pope. And so I met and got to know Pope John Paul II.

What was your initial impression of him?

First and foremost, I saw the great humanity of this man. Cardinal Ratzinger would say he was a man from whom there emanated a great human warmth.

For him, every human person was important. He treated every person—even those he met for a moment—as a gift from God. And if someone was talking with him, it was as though the Pope was there only for him. It was this great capacity to communicate with people, to listen to them, and to make himself understood.

He always remembered the people he met, even those he met briefly. That was how I discovered his great humanity.

What else struck you about Pope St. John Paul II?

Through my continued work at the center for Polish pilgrims, I had the chance to visit the private chapel of the Pope to participate in the morning Mass, and there I discovered Karol Wojtyla, the priest. I had never seen a priest celebrate the Mass like him: with dedication, with depth, with concentration. It was incredible.

Then afterward, one could see he was a mystic by the way he prayed; he was talking with God.

In that little chapel one discovered an almost transcendent dimension of reality. There I discovered this man who always put the Mass, the Eucharist, and prayer at the center of his life.

There was always a rule in the apartment: you don’t disturb the Pope while he’s praying, because for him, prayer was the most important thing.

And he prayed because he was eminently convinced that God was listening to him. He prayed because he believed in the efficacy of prayer.

When we would enter his chapel, we could see a little book near his kneeler with intentions, because he prayed for real people: for the sick, for desperate cases, he prayed for concrete things.

If today we hold him up as a saint, it’s because he obtained grace from God, through his prayer. And one saw this also when he was still alive. Cardinal Ratzinger told me in an interview that while Pope John Paul was still alive, and they were working together, he realized he was dealing with a saint.

What stands out for you in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II?

The assassination attempt.

I was in St. Peter’s Square on the day of his assassination attempt. I was here on May 13, 1981. I thought it was the end of the pontificate. But as providence would have it, he continued for another 24 years, until 2005, to introduce the Church into the 3rd millennium.

When the Pope was dying, I realized that someone was dying who had done so much for the Church. He was someone who, to some extent, succeeded in putting the brakes on the secularization of the Western world. He succeeded in enabling millions of people to rediscover faith in Jesus Christ.

Therefore while humanly I was sorry, I knew that this man completed a great mission.

How did you decide to write this book?

The Pope’s death left a great void within me. I lost not only the Pope, but also the rudder of my life. It was as though I’d lost a father.

I tried to fill the void he left in various ways. As a journalist, I began interviewing people who knew Pope John Paul II. I conducted somewhere around 50 or 60 interviews whose lives were interconnected with Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.

Before the canonization, someone proposed the idea of publishing a book with the interviews and I chose 21 of them, to tell the story of Karol Wojtyla, who was about to be proclaimed a saint.

Who did you interview for the book?

First and foremost, friends of his from Poland, collaborators in the Roman curia, the witnesses to his pontificate. There were also people tied to the cause of beatification and canonization, with two people who were healed through his intercession.

But at a certain point, I realized someone was missing, because the Pope always repeated: I can leave the Vatican, I can travel, because I have two people who help me: Cardinal Ruini for Rome and Cardinal Ratzinger in the Vatican.

I had conducted an interview with Cardinal Ruini but the second column of the pontificate was missing: Cardinal Ratzinger.

And so I wrote to the Pope emeritus, and also sent him the draft of the book, and said: “Your Holiness, your testimony is missing from this book.” A couple of months passed, but finally he responded with a “yes.” This led to a unique and moving interview, unique because it was the only interview he granted after his resignation.

In this interview, we discover the nature of the relationship between Cardinal Ratzinger—as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—with Pope John Paul II. It’s a story or friendship and warmth between a great theologian and a great pope.

The Pope emeritus wrote very beautiful things in this interview. First and foremost, he says he was convinced about the sanctity of his predecessor.

What do you think Pope John Paul II would say to the Synod Fathers?

First of all, Theology of the Body began with him. He was the Pope of the Family. Even Pope Francis said this at the canonization. He is also the Pope of Familiaris Consortio. He was a Pope who grew as a priest, bishop and cardinal in very close contact with families. For him, the family was the basis of the Church. But he had a very precise vision of the family, which had to be the vision willed by God, the vision transmitted by Christ. And so he would be uncompromising on doctrine.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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