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from issue no. 05 - 2004

Papal Autobiography

Giulio Andreotti

The cover of <I>Arise, let us go! </I>by John Paul II, in French, German, and Spanish

The cover of Arise, let us go! by John Paul II, in French, German, and Spanish

The simultaneous publication of a book in many languages is an extraordinary event. But rarer still – indeed without precedent – is, with that spread, the autobiography of a pope.
Collections of speeches, of acta and of encyclicals stir no surprise: they’ve always existed. I myself collaborated as a student on a collection of maxims on the social doctrine of the Church, taken from documents given out by popes. One can give a very simple explanation for the historic event of the publication of the life of John Paul II written by himself and launched Urbi et orbi on a scale of publishing truly without precedent. Let us look at recent popes: Benedict XV could draw on his work experience at the Secretariat of State and in the pastoral direction of Bologna. Pius XI on the precious Library research (maybe with a mention of his summer excursions to the mountains). Pius XII on the tumultuous events during his nuncioship in Munich and Berlin. Paul VI on his ministry to university students and among Catholic graduates. John XXIII on his dramatic rescue of the German Jews in Turkey. John Paul I on his popular teaching through Il Messaggero di Sant’Antonio.
All interesting pages without doubt, but within the framework of a young vocation and of a life in the seminary: a picture, however, lacking remarkability.
John Paul II represents a resounding novelty not because he is a foreigner but because of the personal trajectory that preceded his vocation to the priesthood and accompanied throughout his ministry in a dramatic picture of persecution, war, and subtle hostility from the powers that be. Among the many “public figures” who claim to be close to the workers Karol Wojtyla was a worker and with hard and exhausting jobs. The members of Solidarnosc felt that he was one of them.
Karol Wojtyla at the age of two in a photo from 1922 with his parents Karol and Emilia

Karol Wojtyla at the age of two in a photo from 1922 with his parents Karol and Emilia

Already in his book Gift and mystery we were presented with the facets of a very marked personality, a man of many callings and qualities that could have made him emerge professionally in fields different from that of the priesthood, starting from the theater for which he felt a particular bent. But in the present biography, as epigraph to the chapter on “Vocation”, he puts a quotation from the Gospel: «You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you». This time the call was not to the priesthood, but to the episcopacy. The description of this calling - it came to him during the summer holiday he spent in the mountains and in canoeing - is a poetic page. He covered the last stretch of his journey to Warsaw in a truck loaded with flour.
Cardinal Wyszynski informed him of his appointment as auxiliary to Krakow. He tried to refuse, candidly pointing out his few years (thirty-eight), but he heard himself answered with great wit: he would be rid of that frailty soon enough.
Krakow was having a very rough time. When, in 1942, the previous archbishop, Cardinal Sapieha received through Pius XII’s envoy (Monsignor Quirino Paganuzzi) the text of the Pope’s protest against the oppression everyone was suffering, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, objected to the futility, indeed the aggravating effect it would have. The envoy could report to Rome on the tragic life of the Poles at that terrible moment. When Wojtyla became axiliary bishop in 1958 the situation had certainly not improved. On the contrary.
There are chapters in the book describing the multi-faceted work the tyro bishop undertook with a particular accent on motherhood and fatherhood (pastoral care for the family) and on the universities. And the difficulties that the regime posed for the Catholic magisterium are set out, including the boycott on the building of new churches. In a television interview broadcast in recent days from Nowa Huta a survivor told of the tenacious personal commitment of Monsignor Wojtyla to pushing through the construction of a consecrated building in their working-class town, subjected to totalitarian communism and till then devoid of buildings for worship.
Karol Wojtyla celebrating mass in the open at Nowa Huta, after consecrating a new church

Karol Wojtyla celebrating mass in the open at Nowa Huta, after consecrating a new church

In his book the Pope devotes a moving description to the episode. But apart from the chronicles of suffering of Polish Catholicism the Pope devotes some very illuminating pages to themes of great and enduring relevance for the universal Church. Including the problem of collegiality that so anguished Paul VI. In this context are set the experiences of Vatican Council II and of the synods; with mention also of the personal friendships created with bishops from other countries. Particular mention is made of Cardinal Ratzinger, whose exceptional theological knowledge is acknowledged and we are explicitly told: «I give thanks to God for the presence and help of Cardinal Ratzinger, who is a trusted friend».
The ending of the book on the subject of Rome is moving: «I speak from a place where the love of Christ our Savior has led me, asking me to leave my homeland to bring fruit elsewhere by his grace, a fruit destined to endure. Echoing the words of our Teacher and Lord, I too repeat to each of you, dearest brothers in the episcopate: “Arise, let us go!”. We go trusting in Christ. He it will be who accompanies us on our journey, as far as the goal that only he knows».
To express what one feels for John Paul II I’d like to borrow from a very fine pamphlet that the rebellious Don Primo Mazzolari wrote, setting himself apart from admiring biographies and terms of appreciation that, even if pertinent and just, could appear flattering.
He spoke of the homesickness the Pope must feel, amid the wafting of fans (a term then used) and admiring expressions, at the simple memory of his mother when in the evening, blessing him, she went to tuck in the blankets and wish him good night. Karol Wojtyla lost his mother very early. So the reference is still more moving and relevant.

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