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John Paul II’s secret get-aways to the mountains

POPE JOHN PAUL II,SKIING

Bettman | Getty Images

Karol Wojtyla skiing as a cardinal.

Agnieszka Bugała - published on 11/27/21

The whiteness of the pure snow hid that of the Holy Father's cassock, recalls part of the security team who made these excursions possible.

“Pope John Paul II used to say that every climb that involves difficulties and fatigue is rewarded by the possibility of touching and experiencing God,” says General Enrico Marinelli in his book “Pope Wojtyla and the General” (Papa Wojtyla e il generale, 2007).

For 15 years, Marinelli was responsible for John Paul II’s security during all his travels on Italian territory. Protecting John Paul II was sometimes an almost impossible mission. It’s well known that this pope was passionate about sports from the time of his youth; besides swimming and kayaking, his great love was the mountains. His election to the Throne of Peter did not diminish in any way this passion. On the contrary, unusual measures had to be taken so that this athlete in a white cassock could practice his favorite sports. So how did the general do it?

An athlete in a white cassock

John Paul II got away to the mountains as often as he could. He climbed difficult trails, often leaving his bodyguards far behind. Before being elected pope, this great lover of skiing and hiking, who lived for many years in Krakow, about 100 kilometers from the Tatra Mountains, practiced these two sports regularly. As soon as he moved to Rome, he decided to escape to the Italian peaks from time to time and find places where he would feel at home.

As Marinelli explains, he quickly acquired a taste for the mountains of Italy: “Adamello, Lorenzo, Gran Sasso, the Aosta Valley: in all these places, the whiteness of the pure snow hid well that of the Holy Father’s cassock,” he recalls. 

Of course, these escapades took place in the greatest secrecy. Only those who supervised his security knew about them.

“When the Holy Father told his entourage that he wanted to spend a few hours, sometimes a few days, outside the Vatican, he always surprised those who naturally thought of Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence: for John Paul II, ‘outside the Vatican’ meant going to a wild, remote and isolated place,” explains Marinelli in his book. 

The general then organized thorough security checks in the relevant area, through local inspections by the carabinieri. Once the area was secured, discretion was pushed to its maximum. Even the locals were not aware of the Pope’s excursions. The cars carried him to the starting point of the mountain to be climbed. “Usually it was every Tuesday: the Pope had a relatively free day,” writes Marinelli.

A rejuvenating experience of God

“I didn’t deserve it,” the Pope once said, full of gratitude to the security service, as he returned from a secret mountain escapade. “He came up to me, clearly happy and embarrassed at the same time,” recalls Marinelli.

John Paul II had accepted that each of his secret trips outside the Vatican had to involve a special organization of security services. After the assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, when the threat to his life became a reality, every departure from daily protocol was both a risk and a challenge.

But John Paul II really needed those moments of isolation and exercise. He needed to ski in the winter, and hike in the mountains in other seasons. The personal guards who took care of him on a daily basis understood this. They were also willing to help him with those few secret getaways he regularly requested. They were the discreet servants who certainly contributed, through their efficiency, to the Polish Pope’s ability to exercise one of the longest pontificates in history.

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Pope John Paul IISports
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