If you know much about the young Polish actor and philosopher Karol Wojtyla, then you know that his path to the Catholic priesthood was quite unusual, surrounded as we was by the horrors of the Nazi occupation and then the chains of a puppet regime marching to a Soviet drummer.
In his massive authorized biography of the St. Pope John Paul II, "Witness to Hope," George Weigel argued that a key to understanding Wojtyla is to grasp the degree to which his faith and spiritual disciplines were shaped by the lives of strong laypeople and his many friends -- male and female -- who surrounded him in academia, the underground theater and similar settings.
Once he became a priest, he spent years as a campus minister working with young adults during his graduate studies and beyond.
In other words, if you want to picture the life and times of the future Pope John Paul II (and you want to understand the material covered in this week's "Crossroads" podcast) then it's wrong to picture him in some kind of pre-seminary ecclesiastical assembly line, surrounded by other young men headed to holy orders and, yes, celibacy.
Instead, picture him trying to explain his priestly vocation to his girlfriend. Picture him carrying a canoe on a camping trip, explaining Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality to college students of both genders (creating friendships that in many cases lasted his whole life) and holding Mass as far as possible from Communist police. Check out this sprawling made-for-TV bio-pic starring John Voight and Cary Elwes.
In other words, the more you know about Karol Wojtyla, then the less likely you are to be stunned by the wink-wink BBC reports about his years of "secret letters" to a female philosopher friend. Knowing his history, you are more likely to understand images of him in a t-shirt and shorts (maybe his boxers) talking to a blonde woman outside a tent in the woods. You will understand that this wasn't a romantic getaway, but a mixed-gender outing with a circle of friends.
So watch the BBC feature (shown on PBS) at the top of this post, paying close attention to how it describes this friendship between a married female philosopher and the man who would be hailed as pope and then saint. Is this placed in the context of John Paul II's many lifelong friendships? Is it clear that people who worked with this pope knew Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, as well as other women who were close to him?
Much of this, of course, was discussed in my earlier post on this topic. Click here to catch up on that. Then the podcast dug deeper into two topics that I think are worthy of coverage.
The first is how many people think about celibacy and "saints." Fact is, there are (shocking, I know) married saints and also saints whose histories were, to say the least, complex when it came to their lives before their conversions. If you don't know anything about St. Mary of Egypt, then by all means look her up (and hang on).
Second, I don't think journalists have paid enough attention to the struggle in modern churches to articulate a complex, even inspirational vision of the role of friendships in the lives of modern believers. Actually, some churches aren't struggling with this, they aren't even really trying. And what about issues related to chastity and celibacy? What is the purpose of the human person, the body, the emotions and friendship, in marriage and outside of marriage?
Ironically, this leads us right back to St. Pope John Paul II and one of the major achievements of his life and papacy -- the volume of teachings commonly referred to as "The Theology of the Body." I would argue that one really can't understand some of the issues raised in his friendship with Tymieniecka without seeing it in the context of their MUTUAL interest in some of these philosophical and theological issues.
The following video about the "secret letters" coverage will help.
It will also help to read this Crux think piece that ran under the headline, "On the celibacy of St. John Paul II." Here is a key chunk of what author Mathew N. Schmalz has to say.
I would suggest that Karol Wojtyla’s relationship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka should neither surprise nor scandalize us -- especially if we read what John Paul II actually wrote about love.
With the anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s death approaching April 2, it’s important to remember that Karol Wojtyła was an actor, poet, and philosopher. And all of these aspects of his person found expression in his monumental “A Theology of the Body.” Given as a series of public audiences in the early 1980s, Pope John Paul’s theological reflections on the body range broadly, but are rooted in a fundamental understanding of the complementarity of women and men. As John Paul argues, the body has a language — spousal meaning and orientation — that reflects the union of Christ and the Church. Most powerfully for some, and controversially for others, John Paul II energetically defends the teachings of Humanae Vitae as most fully respecting and appreciating the divinely ordered nature and purpose of human sexuality. There is a dramatic scope to his presentation, one that often reaches confounding heights of philosophical abstraction.
But Karol Wojtyła the poet is also there, seemingly struggling with the implications of what he describes, rather technically, as “erotic spontaneity” -- the experience of giving into the overwhelming power of desire and need. While John Paul II argues that such impulses must be resisted in order to achieve a deeper and more authentic form of spontaneity, I always hear a poet’s heart beating along with the philosophical cadences of his prose: This is a man, I realize, who knows about the complexities of love.
It represents a failure of our imagination if we envision John Paul II either as someone totally divorced from human feeling or as someone who finally surrendered to the most human of instincts. The celibate love that John Paul II writes about is engaged, open, and passionate. Indeed, one could say that celibacy is inevitably passionate because it seeks out other forms of connection and communion that lie beyond the surface of our physical selves.
Now, with all of that in mind, let's watch one more mainstream media report on the "secret letters" controversy, if that's really what this is. This is from CBC up north.
What can I say, other than to underline what Carl Bernstein said in that piece? Do these "secret letters" change how people think about John Paul II? Or do these letters only surprise people who don't know much about the life of the young Karol Wojtyla, who grew up to become St. John Paul II?