johnpauliiPhoto: Adam Blicjarski / flickr

One of the great figures of the late twentieth century, Pope John Paul II, is to be formally proclaimed a saint in a liturgical celebration at St Peter’s on April 27, along with Pope John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council.

Among those who knew the late Polish pope well is Spanish doctor and journalist Joaquin Navarro-Valls, head of the Vatican Press Office for 22 years under John Paul II. In this interview with Jordi Picazo he talks about the man, the pope and the philosopher he got to know during those years.

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Can we travel back nine years to the very day when Karol Wojtyla left us?

Well, in that moment I just got the feeling that he finally stopped suffering.

What is the one anecdote you keep closest to your heart about your time shared with John Paul II?

I find it extremely difficult to choose one moment from so many years by the side of John Paul II. However, as a recurrent moment, there were the jokes and personal light-hearted commentaries sparked by his sense of humor. We normally spoke in Italian at work but when he started speaking in Spanish that meant he wanted to tease me and those were moments of an extraordinary familiarity. They were not great issues that we spoke about, but this is the memory

I really keep close to my heart. There were many of those moments, over so many years.

Can you mention some of the personal traits of the new saint? What made Karol Wojtyla cry? What music did he listen to? What was his most cherished dream? What book did he take to his prayer?

Cry? I have seen him moved, touched, but actually cry? I must say that in all the years together I never saw him shed tears either in public or in private. He had a great musical ear and what he liked most were Polish popular songs. Whenever somebody presented him with a new disc he just enjoyed it so much — that wealth of wisdom that all cultures and their people keep in their traditional songs, a philosophy condensed in popular music.

Now, to mention his dreams, he was a man with a dream, many in fact. One of them, ever present in his mind, was to go to China. He did not fulfill it.

He mainly prayed with the Bible. And to be more specific he prayed with the Gospel of John. Once I asked him a silly question: Should the Gospels disappear, what page, or what quote would you preserve, from all that was about to go? Without a moment’s hesitation he said he would keep the chapter in John that says, “The truth will set you free”. He was a man so much in love with truth that he added after he mentioned that point: “It is now more than 30 years since I started thinking about this and I am still working on this line today.”

What are the distinctive traits of the spirituality of John Paul II? What was his charisma? What will he be a special intercessor for?

I think he could be an intercessor for all life events, human life in all its richness, in all its possibilities. He was a man in love with life — all aspects of life, because the life of a human being has a profound anthropological meaning, and a philosophical one too. As a consequence I think he could very well be an intercessor for all things related to human life.

However I think that there is a distinctive trait that I don’t see highlighted enough in most biographies. It was very characteristic of him, and that was his cheerfulness, his great sense of humour. I became aware of this when speaking with him about topics that happened to be very serious indeed, about humankind, international relationships, you just mention it. He always looked at the problem from an angle which was imbued with optimism: he was naturally cheerful.

But where did this cheerfulness come from? This is the number one biographical question. It was not that he was simply sanguine by nature, no! He went much further than that; it was because he strongly believed in those lines of the first human biography ever, the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” He believed that so intensely that even in the apparently most dramatic circumstances he could not forget it.

What place did his Polish motherland have in his heart?

It is obvious that he felt he was a Pole, from head to toe he felt very much a son of Poland, a son of that Slav culture. I remember, the interview he held with Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a historical and fundamental interview, on the first day of December, 1989, the first in a series that would see the beginning of the great changes that would affect the lives of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe. I also remember Mikhail Gorbachev’s comment after that long conversation, about the pope: “We are both Slavs.” In other words, there was a complicity between the men, and that was recurrent and a fundamental trait in the life of John Paul II. He was very much a son of Poland and at the same time, as we all know, he was a citizen of the world, a man who felt at home in any culture.

What was the foundation of his love for the Spanish mystics?

Here we hit a biographical issue. When he finds himself in the moment when he has to decide upon the topic of his doctoral thesis, which is a crucial moment in the life of any intellectual, he did not doubt and chose a Spanish saint, St John of the Cross. All through his life he reflected upon the historical works of St John of the Cross. He was also very familiar with Saint Teresa de Jesús as well as other Spanish saints, but St John of the Cross in a way shaped John Paul II’s interior life and his identity.

Did Karol Wojtyla have any mystical experiences involving Mary, the Mother of God?

Well, that is a chapter on its own in the life of Karol Wojtyla. When I saw him praying, specifically in Fatima or Lourdes, or in any other place where there was a Marian shrine, it seemed to me I was seeing through John Paul II at prayer the great depth of a theologian who knew theology very well, but in whom that was inseparably linked with the spontaneity  of a little child. Two aspects that were perfectly linked to one another and in perfect balance: this was the trait that somehow allowed me to enter that Marian dimension of his existence.

John Paul II took his name from John Paul I, who took it from John XXIII and Paul VI. Have we seen in the 20th century a unity in the intentions of all the popes?

When John Paul II came out as an elected Pope I don’t think he doubted for even a minute and adopted the same name by which we had known his predecessor — a Pope who had passed away only 30 days after he was elected; it was almost necessary. John Paul II himself made that point to me at one time.

About the issue of the heritage left behind by the preceding popes, John Paul II and Paul VI, well yes, agreed, this may also have been an influence; but whenever anybody mentions to me the continuity of a pope — for example, of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, or of Benedict XVI and Francis — I always say that, to be truthful, we must not ignore the fact that we have been living within a continuity for twenty-one centuries. Since the moment of the foundation of the papacy with Peter the names have changed, the aspects have changed that each papal period strengthens, but not the great issue of the doctrinal and moral continuity from one pope to another.

We had in John Paul II a great philosopher, and a great theologian in Benedict XVI. What was the continuity between them in addressing the needs of the Church and the world?

Since he resigned from office Benedict has given one interview, which is being considered again these days in Italy in a book which I launched on April 8th here in Rome. He says with great modesty and with his characteristic intellectual rigour and elegance: “Not only couldn’t I, but I did not want to imitate John Paul II.” In other words, each one of us is responsible for what he or she is and what they have to do, and it is because of this that he becomes different from his predecessor. And he does that with his own charisma, in his own way.

That is what God himself has chosen when he has put a person in the place of another. From this point of view I think that Benedict XVI did not find it difficult to continue what John Paul II had started. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been the number one collaborator of John Paul II all through his pontificate, at least since 1980 when he arrived in Rome.

I think that the great challenge at this moment, as it has probably been in other moments in history, is the need to overcome an anthropological and ethical void, the worst in all the history of humankind.

There are great ethical problems in the world, but before that there is a great anthropological problem, namely, that we do not know who the human being really is. Whenever human nature or truth is mentioned in a philosophy conference people feel strange and uncomfortable, as if these were issues that have nothing to do with human identity. There lies the greatest deficit in our recent history.

Do you think we adequately value the teachings of John Paul II on the family? Is John Paul II’s theology of the body well enough known in Catholic universities, seminaries and in courses for couples that are going to get married?

A document such as Familiaris Consortio, an encyclical letter by John Paul II, is still a great document about human love. A document that — and I am particularly surprised about this — when I travel and go to universities outside my usual ambit, places not likely to have anything to do with Catholicism or even the Christian faith, to realize that it continues being studied and acknowledged, because it has an extraordinary wealth of content.

John Paul II, when he was a Bishop, not yet a Cardinal, began to work on this issue and wrote that great book called Love and Responsibility. The book was widely read but he realized that in order to understand well what love and responsibility meant, you need to reflect on what the human being really is, in other words to address the anthropological void I was referring to. Later on he wrote The Acting Person, a very rich book but indeed very complex from the anthropological point of view, and I am not talking about Christian anthropology, but simply the study of man, “culture”. I personally believe we are following that line of thought, what you call the theology of the body.

In the end, we need to consider what human love is from a serious philosophical, anthropological and now also ethical angle; what those parameters of human love are that make it different from love among animals, that make it specific to human beings. This is a great topic which in our time is not sufficiently appreciated. However, the bibliography on this topic is very extensive, thanks to John Paul II.

To be a man or a woman is not an easy endeavour. The human being is not a manufactured good; he or she must constantly realise their freedom, and learn how to put this freedom to good use. This is the great challenge for every human being, what they want to do with their freedom. One can deal with this issue from a theoretical or academic point of view, but in the end, you are the one who has to sort all this out; you and only you, no one can do it for you. 

This may frighten us, but it should not. We should go forward with the assumption that the destiny of every human being is to become really free. Prior to being an ethical dilemma, it is an anthropological one.

I recall an anecdote relating to John Paul II on his death bed. A nurse entered his room and began to perform her duties. Suddenly John Paul asked her about what she had done with her life so far. Apparently the nurse broke into tears and felt the need to start telling him her complete life story.

Indeed, and that is a fact which was recounted by her during the Beatification process. It is a historical fact that clearly shows the extraordinary man that was John Paul II: when he was about to die he could still gather enough strength for that apostolic dimension of caring about other people’s souls.

The Berlin wall fell in 1989… but in Asia and in Cuba we still have communist regimes. Could John Paul II have thought that they would last for so long? Guatemala, The Philippines and other countries abolished the death penalty as a token of friendship towards John Paul II. Is it going too far to say that he was the number one activist against the death penalty in the world? Or perhaps the most effective? In what other ways did he influence the history of the world?

One kind of activism that we can certainly pin on him is activism in favour of human dignity. That was his weapon — speaking, preaching and doing whatever he could for the dignity of the human being — and there we can talk about wars, totalitarianism, you name it. He did not feel he was a political leader, not even when the Berlin wall came down, changing the life of hundreds of thousands in that part of the world. And not only the miracle of the change itself is to be highlighted, but first and foremost that the change happened without bloodshed, and there was no historian who would have thought this would be possible.

Now, all this was possible because he was the great activist — and notice that I am using your word — the great activist of human dignity. That was certainly effective. You have mentioned some countries, Cuba for instance. I visited the island with him, and well, the system has not in fact changed dramatically, but the Church has, and has changed in the way she is present, since she is now recognised in Cuba. Before that trip the Church was denied any social recognition. We could also use these parameters to analyze the situation in Chile, or in Uruguay and Paraguay.

Jordi Picazo is a philologist living in Barcelona.