Anne Harris: We all fell for John Paul II’s sweet nothings

Pope had intense relationship with woman but seduced us all with liberal promise

The conspiracy theorists might see a Popish plot. Last week, Pope Francis went native and said contraception may be used in the prevention of the spread of the Zika virus. At the same time we learned that a paragon pope, one who incidentally was intractable in his opposition to contraception, even against the terrifying worldwide AIDs plague, had an intense 30-year relationship with a Polish woman. More than friends, less than lovers – is John Paul II's plaster sainthood crumbling?

Papal platitudes abounded all last week. "The Pope is a human being," said his supporters. "He didn't break his vow of celibacy," trumpeted the Vatican Press Office. "How would they know?" is the short answer to that.

But, leaving aside the Vatican fixation on the physical facts of sexuality, whether he did or did not isn’t relevant. Was it not the gospel itself, treating of the Sermon on the Mount, which said “a look” was enough to commit adultery in the heart. The Church has always known that, more any other body part, the seat of sexuality is the mind.

As far as we know from the one-sided correspondence between them, the relationship between Karol Wojtyla and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was indeed a meeting of mind and heart. We have only his side, and it's obvious from his responses to her letters that she was the less guarded.


She desired him: that much is clear from his responses. They met in middle age – she was 50 and he was 53 – a factor his supporters see as further dilutant of the possibility of an all-consuming relationship. A cursory knowledge of literature would disabuse them of that. Middle-aged love is powerful because it defies the malice of time and chance. Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra were well past the first flush of youth. He loves her precisely because “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.

Extraordinary egoism

John Paul’s rationale, that it was “a gift from heaven” that he “had to accept”, only becomes comprehensible as his extraordinary egoism is revealed. Their shared mission of translating his book was a powerful bond, and they holidayed together, skiing and camping.

Although he became Pope three years into their relationship, the salad days lasted five years. Until the shared mission met its first big hurdle.

In 1980, on publication of their work, the Vatican tried to write Tymieniecka out of the story. He didn't stand up for her and she told celebrated journalist Carl Bernstein she felt "betrayed". But, true to the epic form that this saga took, the assassination attempt on his life on 1981 brought them back together.

Her telegram is a lover's cri de coeur: "I am overwhelmed by sadness and want desperately to be close to you. I arrive on Saturday." She did – and was allowed to be close. Perhaps because his wounds placed them above suspicion.

Popes have always been pin-ups in Ireland. I come from a long line of women who fancied the Pope. For my foremothers, the Pope had power – the spiritual aphrodisiac which kept them in their place. But Pope John Paul II was a pin-up of a higher order. He came here and he told us all he loved us. We were seduced by the hope of a more liberal Church.

Least liberal

He was, in effect, one of the least liberal popes. Exactly one year after his Irish visit, addressing his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square on the subject of the Sermon on the Mount, he said adultery in the heart is committed by a man who looks lustfully at his own wife.

It always seemed to me that he fetishised sexual love which, for the most part, is an honest, physical sharing between consenting adults. Did this reflect some turmoil about Tymieniecka? And is this the reason he revived so enthusiastically the cult of the Virgin Mary, about which previous Popes had been constrained – even fearful? It became a contagion. But there was method in the myth. In Ireland, the tears of the Ballinspittle Virgin were shed on social tumult about divorce and abortion and charges of child sex abuse in the Church.

Tymieniecka said he wasn’t prone to modesty. Some might look further and find the narcissist: he saw the Third Secret of Fatima (revealed in 1917) as a personal message prophesying the attempt on his life, and direct intervention by the Virgin Mary to save him. His successor, Benedict XV1, was more politic: it was a warning over child sex abuse scandals overwhelming the Church.

“The recesses of the heart must be revealed.” John Paul said to that audience in 1980. And perhaps we will someday know more about the recesses of his. But Pope Francis’s earthier flouting of canon law in time of crisis shows more real heart.