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The Pope, the married woman, and an intriguing friendship of 30 years

Only those with a warped view of celibacy would find it odd John Paul II could have a deeply affectionate - and platonic - rapport with a female

Published 20/02/2016

Pope John Paul II reads on a plane
Pope John Paul II reads on a plane
Ms Tymieniecka
Fr James Martin
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka with the Pope on a skiing trip
Pope John Paul II reads on a plane; an 80-year-old pontiff surrounded by nuns at an Italian retreat in 2000
The Pope blessing a little girl at Knock during his 1979 visit to Ireland

Intimate letters to a married woman spanning three decades have revealed a little-known side to the popular late pontiff. Co Tyrone journalist Michael Kelly reports on the affectionate and achingly honest correspondence that shows a man of God in a whole new light.

The idea that a Pope could maintain an intimate relationship with a married woman will shock and scandalise some. Others will see the correspondence between John Paul II and a Polish-American philosopher revealed this week as a fascinating insight into the very human side of a man they hold to be a saint. Still others will see the letters as further confirmation of a side to the man that they always knew.

Karol Wojtyla - who was elected Pope in 1978 - first met Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka in the early 1970s while still Archbishop of Krakow in his native Poland. It was to be the beginning of a meeting of hearts and minds that lasted for more than 30 years until the pontiff's death.

The two, who shared a deep passion for all things Polish and had mutual philosophical interests, began a correspondence that reveals an intimate side that one might not readily associate with a celibate man.

Shortly after his election in 1978, Pope John Paul II asked Vatican officials to build a modest swimming pool that he could use for exercise while at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. After a suitable pause, the pontiff was informed that it would be too expensive, to which he reportedly quipped: "It'll be cheaper than electing a new Pope!"

The Vatican officials got the message that a fit and healthy Pope was a must, and the pool was duly installed. After all, 1978 was the year of three Popes: the ailing Paul VI died after a prolonged illness, while his successor John Paul I died after just 33 days in office. The prospect of another papal death was too much to contemplate.

It was an early marker that Wojtyla - at 58 the youngest Pope in the 20th century - was different from his predecessors. He was a man's man in every sense of the phrase, and the new correspondence obtained by the BBC with Ms Tymieniecka reveals a warm side to the pontiff, far from the easy caricature of him as a rigid conservative.

Friends and confidants of the Pope - who died in 2005 - say the correspondence is not unique, that he had dozens of such friendships. What makes this story fascinating, however, is that the hundreds of letters are laid bare for all to read. At times it almost seems like an invasion of privacy, so personal and deep is the genuine affection obvious from the pontiff's letters.

Ms Tymieniecka sold the letters to the National Library of Poland in 2008, six years before she died. They reveal a cherished and dear friendship, the memory of which she clearly wanted to preserve for posterity.

Wojtyla had an upbringing quite unlike most of his recent predecessors. In the 20th century most Popes attended junior seminaries from a young age and were highly clericalised long before they were ever ordained to the priesthood. Some had even accompanied their fathers or uncles to the papal court and were well-acquainted with ecclesiastical decorum.

The young Pole, while brought up in a devoutly Catholic home, had a less rarefied, somewhat earthier early life. As a young man Karol had earned a reputation as a bit of a romantic. He wrote poetry as a teenager and mixed easily with his peers. He was a goalkeeper with a local soccer club, and during his studies for the priesthood in the clandestine seminary, he worked in a nearby chemical factory to avoid arousing the suspicions of the Nazi occupiers.

He was an accomplished skier and canoeist and thrived in the great outdoors. He developed an interest in amateur dramatics, and it was through this world that he met many young people his own age who were to become lifelong friends and regular companions on skiing and hiking trips.

But he combined this athleticism with a deep love for academia and philosophy, particularly the discipline of phenomenology. It was his work in phenomenology - which, broadly speaking, explores experiences and consciousness - that brought him to the attention of Ms Tymieniecka. She had contacted him in 1973 about a book he had written on the subject. The then 50-year-old subsequently travelled from the US to Poland to discuss the work.

The pair decided to work on an expanded version of the cardinal's book, The Acting Person. They met many times - often with his secretary present. Shortly afterwards the pair began to correspond. At first the cardinal's letters were formal, but evidently, as their friendship grew, they become more intimate.

George Weigel, whose book Witness To Hope is considered the most authoritative biography of Pope John Paul II, said there was nothing unique in the correspondence.

"Why should anyone find it odd that priests and bishops should have friendships with women, including the kind of friendships in which emotions and ideas are expressed in correspondence? Only those who imagine that celibacy is some weird and warped form of bachelorhood would find it odd," he added.

But, a warped understanding of celibacy may be at the heart of why so many people are fascinated that the Pope could have corresponded with such intimacy.

Fr James Martin SJ, a US-based writer and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, thinks part of the reaction is based on the false belief that celibacy entails a wholesale rejection of intimacy.

While some reject out of hand any suggestion that the correspondents were in love, Fr Martin is open to the possibility. "Everyone falls in love, including men and women who have made a vow of chastity in a religious order, and priests who have made a promise of celibacy. It's part of the human experience," he said.

Fr Martin recalls that, as a priest-in-training, one of his superiors often remarked: "If you don't fall in love, there's probably something wrong with you."

Based on the correspondence, Fr Martin insisted: "It doesn't seem that St John Paul ever broke his promise of celibacy or led her on in any deceitful way. The letters seemed to indicate he struggled with this relationship, but that he was faithful to his promise and tried not to lead her on.

"You're not breaking your promise of celibacy if you fall in love, despite your best efforts."

But many Catholics, and indeed some priests of a particular vintage, will struggle with this all-too-human impression of a saint.

In a 2006 interview with Ursula Halligan on TV3, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin admitted that it was an issue he had struggled with. "I would probably say yes (I've been in love). Sometimes you only realise that afterwards… it's heartbreaking at times," the prelate said.

One elderly priest I spoke to this week recalled his seminary formation in the 1950s where celibacy was viewed as a discipline which required an end to all friendships.

"The Holy Spirit will console when you're lonely" was the mantra that was drilled in to him, he said.

At the time women were often seen as temptresses and "occasions of sin", while so-called "particular friendships" were viewed as dangerous since they consisted of only two people. Friendships, where necessary, should be formed as part of groups.

One would have to wonder to what extent such an impoverished understanding of intimacy, and the immediate association of intimacy with sexual expression and therefore sin, contributed to a distorted understanding of sexuality that came with disastrous consequences.

Most psychologists will say that intimacy, whether one is an avowed celibate or not, is a vital component in living a healthy, fulfilled and integrated life. Besides, even for married people, the felt human need for intimacy is usually met by sharing a takeaway in front of the television on a Friday night or a walk along a beach.

Fr James Martin believes that the correspondence "needs to be seen in the context of his and her humanity, his promise of celibacy and her response to it".

"In the end, are we surprised that a saint could love?" he asked. "Or that someone could love one in return? Because that's part of sanctity: loving and being loved."

Papal biographer George Weigel, meanwhile, is philosophical about the intimacy revealed in the correspondence.

"If these letters help some people understand that Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, was a real person, I'll be pleased; but many of us have known that for a very long time," he said.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper

Intimate letters to a married woman spanning three decades have revealed a little-known side to the popular late pontiff. Co Tyrone journalist MICHAEL KELLY reports on the affectionate and achingly honest correspondence that shows a man of God in a whole new light

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