In a recent
Telegraph
newspaper poll Margaret Thatcher was named the greatest post-war
prime minister of Great Britain. Despite the contempt with which she
was (and is) held by left-wingers, the poll pays tribute to her many
achievements; she would undoubtedly join a roll-call of the
significant world leaders of the 20th century. Yet if one is looking
at such a roll-call to select one single person who did most to
uphold the dignity of man during the latter part of the last century
(though he was to die in 2005), the answer of many people from around
the world, Christian or not, would be the name of John Paul II.

This book, a
“conversation” between the Italian journalist Gian Franco
Svidercoschi and Cardinal
Stanislaw
Dziwisz, helps in its own way to
explain why the late Pope occupies such a pre-eminent place in the
story of these turbulent times. The format is occasionally a little
stilted as Svidercoschi tries to frame his questions to draw out the
Cardinal’s memories. It does not aspire to be in any way
comprehensive and only touches lightly on the public events of the
Pope’s life. (The best book so far in this respect is the biography
by George Weigel, and this itself will be updated in time by others,
such is the multi-faceted personality of the John Paul II, the length
of his pontificate and his place in history.)

But the Cardinal’s
viewpoint is unique: he first met the then Father Wojtyla in 1957
when he entered the seminary. Made auxiliary bishop of Krakow in
1958, Wojtyla kept in touch with the seminarians he had been
supervising. Then in 1966, as a young priest aged 27, Dziwisz was
asked by the bishop if he would become his secretary. Thus the
40-year friendship began.

Dziwisz, raised by a
devout mother in humble circumstances, had lost his own father at the
age of nine. The Pope lost his mother at the same age, followed by
his older brother when he was 12, and finally his father when he was
in his early 20s. Thus it is not inappropriate to recognise in this
friendship a particular spiritual fatherhood on the one hand, and an
unwavering filial affection on the other. Dziwisz’ loyalty and
devotion were total. His reminiscences do not contradict the public
knowledge shared by the millions whose life were affected and often
changed by the Pope during his travels and teachings, but they do add
a personal dimension and warmth to what is already known.

So we are reminded
of Bishop Wojtyla’s recollected preparation before Mass, his habit
of weekly confession, his practice of working on pastoral documents
in the chapel of the Episcopal residency in Krakow. None of this
changed in later life. We are also reminded of his love for young
people and solicitude for married couples as well as his closeness to
the people of his diocese. Dziwisz spells out the difficulties of
living under Communism and the bishop’s constant battles to defend
the Polish people’s right to freedom of religious expression. He
was followed everywhere by secret police; once he escaped them by
jumping from one car to another, mid-journey; but he also waved at
and blessed these policemen, calling them, with some irony, his
“guardian angels”.

From the very
beginning of their association the young priest noticed that the
bishop practised personal austerity, or “poverty” as he calls it;
he had only one black cassock, much patched and mended, and any
royalties he earned from his writings, or offerings that were given
to him, were immediately sent to charity. He did not have anything
and he did not ask for anything. He disliked pomp; after his
inauguration as Pope he refused the gestatorial chair -– “he had
good legs, a mountaineer’s legs” -– the tiara and a coronation.
In the Vatican he lived as simply as he had always done, with a
sparsely furnished bedroom screened off from a tiny study, in which
were just a chair and desk.

It took time,
as Pope, to adjust to having very little privacy, though he always
made time for prayer, rising at 5.30 every day to pray before Mass
and constantly praying between his official engagements during the
day. He would eat frugally at meals, but would try every dish -– a
hangover from the war when, as Dziwisz points out, food was scarce
and you never refused bread or potatoes.

In the early years
Dziwisz and a couple of other priest ski-ers at the Vatican
occasionally gave the Pope a surprise treat, by driving him in an old
car out of a side entrance to the ski slopes of Ovindoli, where he
could indulge his love of the mountains and of skiing. “He kept
thanking us” -– a touching gratitude for the thoughtfulness of
others.

The Pope also took
his pastoral duties as Bishop of Rome very seriously. His last act
every evening was to look out of his bedroom window and bless the
city lying below him. Despite his enormous work load and constant
travelling, he visited all the parishes of his diocese
.
The papal office did not constrain his naturalness or spontaneity:
his kindness to a group of former prostitutes, who wept as they
approached him, taking off his papal ring and giving it to the
inhabitants of a Brazilian slum, speaking outside his official script
and in shaky Spanish to a student gathering.

Some events of the
pontificate stand out, even within the Cardinal’
s
natural reserve, particularly the assassination attempt of 13 May
1981 when the Pope collapsed in his secretary’s arms –- “I
re-live the whole thing, moment by moment” -– and when the
doctors of the Gemelli Clinic donated their own blood in order to
save his life. At the same time, in Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski, the
Primate, lay dying of cancer and Dziwisz describes an affecting phone
conversation between the very sick Pope and the dying Cardinal, who
had shared so many years of keeping alive the Polish Church under
Communist rule.

During the Jubilee
year 2000, the Pope had wanted to visit Abraham’s home in
Ur,
now in Iraq; this was refused by Saddam Hussein and the Pope was sent
“a brick from Abraham’s house” instead. “I always thought
Abraham lived in a tent” was his dry comment. Symptoms of
Parkinson’s disease began in 1991; from then on, as the secretary
remarks, the Pope was never far from the Cross.

Finally we come to
his
sudden decline and death in April 2005,
surrounded by Polish priest friends, all in tears, yet singing the
“Te Deum”; “I don’t remember anything else after that. It’s
as if darkness suddenly descended on me”, admits Dziwisz, adding
poignantly, “I was always at his side… But now he’s gone on
alone.” After the Pope died I sent his secretary a letter of
condolence and received a kind note in reply, in which he indicated
his sense of loss.

It is worth reading
this book for all its personal touches. They are not designed to be
sensational but to contribute to a portrait of an extraordinary man,
whose fearless championing of the dignity of all men, regardless of
their beliefs, defence of peace, compassion and holiness went far
deeper and well beyond the best of our political leaders. No study of
recent history can afford to ignore him.

Francis Phillips writes
from Bucks, in the UK.