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Papal letters reveal loneliness and humanity of John Paul II

By Alf McCreary

Published 20/02/2016

Close friendship: will Pope John Paul’s letters open debate on celibacy?
Close friendship: will Pope John Paul’s letters open debate on celibacy?

One of the most striking stories from the St Valentine's weekend was that of the personal friendship between the late Pope John Paul II and a female philosopher who wrote him a series of what some people might consider to be "love letters".

The story of the correspondence between the Pope and his friend, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, was revealed in a well-balanced BBC Panorama programme presented by Edward Stoughton, who produced an acclaimed biography of John Paul II several years ago.

There was never any suggestion that the Pope had done anything improper, but it was clear that the lady, who was married to an American academic, was deeply smitten by him.

Her letters were put on sale some time ago, and quickly buried away in the Polish National Library. The details of John Paul's letters to her have not yet been revealed.

The Vatican seems to have tried hard to play down the relationship, and to airbrush the woman from the Pope's personal and ecclesiastical history.

This is not surprising. The Vatican's civil servants are good at getting their own way, as Pope Francis has sadly discovered.

So what do you make of it? Some local Catholic commentators, like others in the Vatican, are keen to stress that the Pope kept within "the proper boundaries", but to my mind they miss the whole point of the story.

This is really all about the humanity of John Paul the man, and also of the woman, as well as the searing loneliness of leaders in high places, and especially of bachelors as they grow older.

However, the story does bring into question the whole concept of Catholic clerical celibacy. As most people are aware, clerical celibacy is a man-made invention, and it is not a ruling from the Bible.

Therefore being man-made, this rule will sooner or later be abolished, if the Catholic Church is to survive as an institution and to show a more human, understanding face to its people. Celibacy should become a choice for priests, and not a commandment imposed by the Catholic Church alone.

No doubt celibacy is a burden for many younger Catholic clergy but even more burdensome is the prospect of living without, and growing old without, the comfort of a woman's companionship and love, of the kind that found in all lasting relationships.

As a journalist I have encountered deep loneliness among a number of Catholic clergy. One man, who left the priesthood, told me that he had done this partly because he did not want to live the rest of his life alone.

One of the greatest scourges of modern society is loneliness, and this is all the greater for those whose vocation or job sets them apart from the mainstream of daily life and other people.

This is increased by the structure within the Catholic Church itself where the emphasis seems to be more on ecclesiastical correctness within the priesthood, rather than on the pastoral care of these men as human beings.

This comes across particularly from those who have been wrongly accused of sexual misbehaviour and who feel that they have been hung out to dry by their Church, while their case drags through the courts.

Perhaps that rare glimpse of Pope John Paul's II's loneliness and humanity might encourage the Catholic Church to be more understanding of the humanity of those serving within its ranks. One often wonders, however, if the Catholic Church, as an institution, listens to any one but itself.

'One wonders if the Vatican listens to any one but itself'

Belfast Telegraph

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