WARSAW — A just-published collection of letters ruminating on love and sex that represent a half-century of correspondence between Pope John Paul II and a dear, female friend has caught the Vatican by surprise and may slow the process of sainthood for one of the most revered and beloved pontiffs in modern history.
The existence of the letters between Karol Wojtyla and Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist and devout Catholic mother of four, has created confusion in Rome, where officials in charge of the pontiff’s beatification are asking for her to turn over the full collection of their correspondence to the Vatican. In Poland, clerics are attacking her for publishing the letters.
“Mrs. Poltawska is usurping the exceptional nature of their ties, which were not so in reality. She was probably not the only person who had such long and close links with Karol Wojtyla,” said Stanislaw Dziwisz, now the cardinal of Krakow and formerly John Paul II’s personal secretary, in an interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.
Dziwisz was known for his hostility to Poltawslka, a frequent guest at the Vatican, and she does not appear in his memoir of the pope’s life.
The relationship between the Wojtyla and Poltawska was far from romantic, and there is no suggestion of a physical relationship. She signed her letters “Dusia,” her nickname, and he signed his “Br,” for the Polish word “Brat,” or brother. The letters, published in Poltawska’s recent book, “Memories of the Beskidy Hills,” are unlikely to do anything to tarnish the image of the pope, but they do open a revealing window into the formation of his views on sexuality and contraception.
The fuss in Rome has made Poltawska’s book an enormous issue in Poland, where John Paul II remains a favorite son, with hundreds of statues of him gracing towns and villages, and many main streets named in his honor.
Poltawska’s friendship with Wojtyla began in 1956, in the ancient royal city of Krakow, where he was a young and dynamic priest acting as a chaplain to doctors and lecturing students. She was an acerbic psychiatrist who was looking for spiritual help to deal with the trauma of having been an inmate of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She had been sent there at the age of 19 for being a member of the Polish underground, and had been the victim of gruesome German medical experiments.
Wojtyla always felt a special affinity for her because of the wartime horrors she had experienced, a marked contrast to the relatively easy way in which he had survived the war.
The two, together with her husband, Andrzej, a philosopher, formed a deep friendship that ended up influencing the future pope in many key areas. Wojtyla and the Poltawskis would take long hikes and camping trips into the Beskidy hills of southeastern Poland.
As a young priest, Wojtyla was particularly interested in human sexuality, and Poltawska’s hardline views on love and sex helped shape his view on the inadmissibility of artificial means of contraception, views that influenced Pope Paul VI when he banned such methods of contraception in 1968.
Wojtyla held that sex was an expression of love between a man and a woman, a fairly radical view at the time, but he was strongly against abortion, masturbation, premarital sex and, together with Poltawska, tried to cure homosexuals.
The ties between the two were so close that, when he heard that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1962, while he was attending the Second Vatican Council, Wojtyla asked for an intervention from controversial miracle worker Padre Pio. Poltawska’s quick recovery from cancer persuaded Wojtyla that a miracle had occurred, and when he was pope he made the Italian priest a saint.
When Wojtyla was made pope in 1978, Poltawska felt lost and alone, writing, “I felt like a tree standing on suddenly dry ground, like an empty bell which cannot ring because it lacks a heart.”
But she quite quickly saw that having her closest friend as one of the most powerful men on earth would allow her to have enormous influence over areas she felt most strongly about — sexuality and abortion.
She remained close to John Paul II throughout his papacy, and was at his bedside when he died in 2005.
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