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Pope relationship programme flawed: leading Catholics

By Laurence White

A leading Catholic commentator has described the Panorama programme on the relationship between Pope John Paul II and a married woman as an attempt to make it something more controversial than it really was.

Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, said: "The letters sent by Pope John Paul II to the lady were interesting and it was an interesting insight into the close relationship that they had, but I came away with the feeling there were so many holes in the programme as it tried to make it into something more than it was."

The BBC documentary explored the 32-year-long friendship between the Pope, which began while he was still a cardinal, and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a philosopher who was married to an American academic.

During that period they exchanged hundreds of letters - her 350 to the pontiff were later sold by her to the National Library of Poland, where they have remained hidden from view - and it was the papal letters which formed the basis of the programme.

Mr Kelly said that comments made in the programme which described Pope John Paul II, who has since been canonised, as a conservative strongly opposed to relaxing the Church's rules on celibacy, implied that he was being hypocritical by conducting this close friendship with a married woman.

"It started out on the false premise that someone of his views should not have had a deep and profound relationship with a woman even though that relationship was not sexual. There is no evidence that the Pope broke his vow of celibacy but that it not something that would have been immediately apparent to the casual viewer."

However, Mr Kelly said the programme was something the Catholic Church should regard as a learning moment to emphasise that celibacy was not some kind of bachelorhood, but was a way of living that can be healthy and that celibates can have a relationship as long as everyone knows what the boundaries are.

He added: "Certainly this lady had very strong and heartfelt feelings for him and he had also. It is interesting to note the response of the Vatican. It did not try to deny the relationship or cover anything up but rather said there was nothing new in the programme. It is no surprise that Pope John Paul II had this intimate letter writing relationship. That is partly because he did not grow up in the rarified atmosphere of many of his predecessors. He was a goalkeeper and worked in a factory when studying secretly for the priesthood in Communist-controlled Poland. He did a lot of thing we don't associate with Popes and it is no surprise he had friends outside clerical circles."

Martin O'Brien, a former senior BBC journalist in Belfast and a commentator on Catholic issues, said: "Pope John Paul II stayed within the proper boundaries in this relationship and that must have required tremendous discipline. He trusted himself to maintain that relationship, which would make a gripping film."

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