Breda O’Brien: Pope John Paul II had many friends, including women, which proves nothing

A ‘Panorama’ documentary about the pope’s ‘secret ’ relationship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka tells a one-sided story


Edward Stourton, in this week’s BBC Panorama programme, The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, investigated a relationship between the pope and a Polish-born philosopher, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, which he coyly terms as being “more than friends, and less than lovers”.

It was based on letters spanning 32 years stored in the National Library of Poland.

The trouble is, there is nothing much secret about the friendship. It has been extensively covered by biographers, including by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, who when writing of Tymieniecka, said reporters scoured the earth looking for a woman who had been Karol Wojtyla’s “lover, wife or companion. They found none because there were none”.

However, he also says the search meant journalists overlooked Tymieniecka’s importance in terms of politics and philosophy.

Tymieniecka was Wojtyla’s intellectual equal, recognised internationally for her work on Edmund Husserl. She described the pope as an incomparable philosophical partner.

This scholar was happily married for 52 years to a man as intelligent and cos- mopolitan as she was, Hendrik (Henk) Houthakker, a Dutch-born professor of economics at Harvard, who was also close to the pope.

Stourton claims some “old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing” led him to the conclusion that Tymieniecka made a declaration of romantic love in 1975. He offers absolutely no evidence and no source.

Stourton was given access to only half of the correspondence, that from the pope to Tymieniecka.

‘A rather bad joke’

Tomasz Makowski

Further, Makowski says the photographs that appear to show the then cardinal Wojtyla on holiday alone with Tymieniecka were actually holidays taken with groups.

In 1975, when the friends met, the Polish Secret Service, Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, had about 84,000 informants, of whom 2,600 were priests.

If there were even a hint of an improper relationship, it would have been seized upon either to discredit or blackmail Wojtyla, who was a thorn in the side of the Communists.

The Panorama programme is certainly selective. For example, much is made of a visit to North Pomfret in 1976, where Tymieniecka and her husband had a holiday home. No mention is made of Fr Stanislaw Dziwisz, later secretary to the pope, or her husband and youngest son being there, too. Hardly a romantic assignation.

There is also great play made of the story that Wojtyla gave Tymieniecka a scapular which he had received from his father. That reminded me the pope requested his medical team not to remove his scapular in 1981 after the infamous assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca.

He also mentions the scapular in a 1996 book, Gift and Memory. He says, “I, too, received the scapular, I think at the age of 10, and I still wear it.” There is no mention of his father, much less Tymieniecka.

In the programme, in the letter where he mentions the gift, he simply says “a scapular”, not “my own personal scapular”.

Many Catholics will be familiar with the brown scapular, dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In one church document the brown scapular is described as being “an incitement to become like Mary by imitating her virtues, above all her humility, chastity, and spirit of prayer”.

Given that, even if it were his own, the scapular looks more like a spiritual gift and much less like the cementing of a quasi-romantic relationship.

I don’t doubt the depth of the friendship, or consider that it is a sign of anything unseemly. John Paul seems to have had a phenomenal capacity for friendship, something which our age longs for but often finds difficult.

The pope was a man of huge personal warmth. There are so many photographs of him walking arm in arm with people, or holding their hands; everyone from Mother Teresa to Mary Robinson.

He corresponded for decades with hundreds of people. He had many friendships with women, something mentioned by a programme contributor.

In fact, one of his closest friends was also a happily married woman mentioned in the programme, Wanda Poltawska, but her existence rather ruins the perception that there was anything unique about his relationship with Tymieniecka.

Poltawska was captured by the Nazis aged 18, taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp, worked half to death, experimented on medically, and was lucky to survive.

She was friends with Wojtyla for 55 years, and John Paul once told her she was his vocation, because her experiences of life had been so difficult.

Poltawska, too, rushed to his bedside in 1981 after the assassination attempt, just like Tymieniecka. One suspects that many of his inner circle did.

Poltawska and Wojtyla were close collaborators, to the extent that she is seen as a significant influence on his formation of the theology of the body, an approach to sexuality and spirituality that is one of his great legacies.

No impropriety has ever been suggested. It amuses me that John Paul’s friendships receive such scrutiny, when no one commented on the fact that emeritus pope Benedict lived in the Vatican with a community of four laywomen.

They were not nuns, did not wear religious habits, and worked at ordinary jobs. One of them, Manuela Camagni, was only 56 when she died tragically in a car accident.

These laywomen were celibate consecrated members of Memores Domini, part of Communion and Liberation.

In Peter Seewald’s book, Light of the World , Benedict spoke about how important his “papal family” was, describing how they ate together, celebrated Christmas together and sometimes watched films.

No one batted an eyelid. Nor, indeed, should they. Just like John Paul, it was a good thing that he had close women friends.

It’s just a pity that our age is fixated on sex to the extent that it cannot really believe that true friendship between two people of the opposite sex is not only possible, but a nourishing and good thing.