Airing on PBS stations (check your local listings) on Tuesday, April 5 — and produced by Blakeway Prods. Ltd., and THIRTEEN Productions LLC, for WNET in association with the BBC and ARTE France — “The Secrets of Saint John Paul” centers on letters the late pontiff and saint exchanged with a married Polish-American philosopher, the late Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
The press release says, “It was a relationship the Vatican has kept secret for decades.”
Well, even public figures have private lives, and often correspondence is part of that. In 2008, the same year her husband died — and three years after the pope died, on April 2, 2005 — Dr. Tymieniecka sold over 300 letters to the National Library of Poland that Saint John Paul II had written to her between 1973 and 2004. Reportedly it was for a “seven-figure-sum,” meaning $1M or more.
After her death in 2014, news of the letters circulated, leading to BBC broadcaster Edward Stourton being allowed to see and film the letters — which only included the ones the pontiff wrote.
Also in the film are many casual photographs taken of Saint John Paul II, showing him relaxed, in civilian clothes, often enjoying the outdoors.
The press release for the documentary states:
Just how revelatory is The Secrets of Saint John Paul? Though there is no suggestion in the letters or in the documentary of any impropriety between Pope John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka, what we learn from his letters sheds informative light on both his intellect and his humanity.
Of course, people are titillated by the idea that the pope had a friendship with a woman over many years (which included a visit to her vacation home in Vermont, with her husband present), even if there is zero indication that Saint John Paul II ever violated his vow of celibacy.
It appears to have been an intellectual and emotional friendship, which began in 1973. Dr. Tymieniecka contacted the then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, Poland, about translating a book he penned on philosophy into English (apparently they didn’t see eye-to-eye on the final result). At the time, the Polish-born Tymieniecka, 50, was living in the United States with her husband, Harvard economist Hendrik Houthakker.
In a Feb. 15, 2016, piece for BBC.com, Stourton wrote:
I have only seen one side of the correspondence – his letters to her – and it is, of course, sometimes impossible to know what the cardinal is referring to. But I have done some old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing, and I believe that at an early stage of the relationship – probably in the summer of 1975 – Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka told Karol Wojtyla that she was in love with him.
Considering the saint’s popularity and charisma, it’s likely, if Tymieniecka said such a thing, she wasn’t the first or only woman to have such feelings. It’s reasonable to think that John Paul II had long ago learned how to deal with this (as must many priests and religious who are faithful to their vows).
Said the press release (which can be read in its entirety here):
The letters are filled with emotion as they meditate on the nature of human relationships. They reflect Pope John Paul II’s struggle against Communism in his native Poland, and his shaping of Catholicism into the spiritual wellspring of an opposition movement that would – as he had always believed – bring about a revolution and sweep away the Soviet Empire.
And, from a Feb. 15 piece in The New York Times:
In a telephone interview, George Weigel, an American Catholic theologian who wrote a two-volume biography of John Paul, said it was “simply silly” to view the correspondence as revelatory. “Karol Wojtyla had many friendships with women, men, children, clergy, laity, intellectuals, workers — there is no news here,” he said.
But the Rev. Adam Boniecki, a Polish priest who knew John Paul, said the relationship was a significant one. “She was an important intellectual partner with whom he could discuss philosophical issues,” he said in a phone interview. He added that “they fought, too,” noting the translation controversy.
“She was a very beautiful woman, and he was the most powerful man in the Roman Catholic Church,” Father Boniecki added. “Even if there was nothing between them, people would still love to see something there.”
And they can, because Dr. Tymieniecka chose to sell their private correspondence. Now it will be made public, as is often the case with historical figures — something that Saint John Paul II probably anticipated from the moment he was elected pope.
While the letters offer a glimpse into the private man behind the saint — which has value for believers — it also behooves Catholics to resist the temptation to see things that aren’t necessarily there.
Images: Courtesy WNET