Tonight — Tuesday, April 5 — PBS (check local listings for the station in your area) is airing “The Secrets of Saint John Paul II,” a BBC documentary about a longtime correspondence and friendship between Saint Pope John Paul II and a woman.
Here’s how I described it in a previous blog post:
[It] centers on letters the late pontiff and saint exchanged with a married Polish-American philosopher, the late Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
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.
Yesterday, I got to see the full special, and it states, at least twice, that there is ZERO indication that Saint John Paul II, either before or after he became pope, ever violated his vow of celibacy, with Dr. Tymieniecka or anybody else. But, the special, and some of those interviewed in it, hint as hard as possible about how strange all this is (wink, wink). They also go into the regular secular confusion about why Catholic priests are celibate — or how they manage it.
A couple of commentators also can’t believe how John Paul II could be such a kind and loving guy, and still be such a doctrinal hardliner on things like priestly celibacy or women’s ordination (you know that one had to come up).
It’s quite possible that Dr. Tymieniecka let her feelings get the best of her early on the relationship, but by all available evidence, John Paul II managed to work through that and keep a valuable friendship and intellectual collaboration going, without crossing the line.
In conversation today with Family Theater Productions’ own head of production, Fr. David Guffey, C.S.C., he addressed this general issue by talking about the importance of priests being able to have close and solid — while still pure — friendships with members of both sexes. He also stressed that they must still be very conscious of unintentionally giving scandal, and be acutely aware of their own limitations and weaknesses, and those of the other person.
Even without sex, a relationship can still be unhealthy or exploitative, and Fr. Guffey emphasized that he always keeps in mind whether the life of the other person — and, by extension, their hopes for salvation — are better for his having been in his or her life. If that answer is no, a priest should always step back.
As a mature man of faith, John Paul II had many friendships, including with women, and apparently navigated these potentially dangerous waters with grace — regardless of what any secular reporter or filmmaker might want to think or imply.
Here’s how lecturer and speaker Jason Everts, whose specialty is interpreting Saint John Paul II’s own groundbreaking work on human sexuality, marriage and family life, “Theology of the Body,” for young people, addressed the “secret letters” of John Paul II:
Image: Courtesy PBS/WNET