Karol and Wanda: A Primer

There has been a lot of coverage and, seemingly, hand-wringing over the issue of Dr. Wanda Poltawska and her letters to and from Pope John Paul II, with talk of how they will slow down the progress of the Pope’s cause for beatification/canonization.  Here are the basics of the issue.

So who’s Wanda? Dr. Wanda Poltawska, now 87, is a Polish psychiatrist who was a friend of Karol Wojtyla forwanda more than half a century.  She was married and has four daughters.  

(Some articles are calling her a “sex psychiatrist.”  That’s probably a pretty anachronistic term and no doubt intentionally sensationalistic.  Probably “family therapist” or “marriage therapist” would be better.)

How did she get to know JP2?  During World War II, Poltawska was arrested by the Nazis at age 19 for her involvement in the Polish resistance movement.  She was imprisoned in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, tortured, and used in ghastly medical experiments.  Following that terrible experience, she sought out a priest for some spiritual guidance to help her through the trauma.  She found Fr. Wojtyla.  He became friends with her, as well as with her husband and children.  (He was 2 years older than her.)

Their relationship?  Close friends, it seems.  (See Cardinal Dziwisz’s opinion below for the only reason I add “it seems.”)  Wojtyla was a frequent visitor to their home, and he went on family vacations with them.  After he was elected Pope , she and her family visited him annually at the Pope’s summer residence.  She was allowed to visit his hospital room after the 1981 assassination attempt.  She also allowed at his bedside (with a roomful of other people, of course) when he died.  He signed his letters to her “Br,” short for brat (“brother” in Polish). 

Apparently during the 1960’s, in fact, when she was diagonosed with cancer, a distressed Wojtyla wrote to Padre Pio asking for his prayers for her.  The cancer was soon cured.  (And JP2 canonized Pio in 2002.)

She speaks of him today (here) with great admiration and respect:

“He loved all people and wanted to save all,” she said. “He had nothing: no car, no TV, no phone, nothing. Just a backpack and his prayer book.”

To her, Wojtyla was a “paragon of modesty, poverty and sainthood.”

There’s a book involved?  Yes, Dr. Poltawska has recently published The Beskidy Mountains Recollections (English translation of the Polish title).  The Associated Press describes the book

The 570-page book recalls annual family vacations with Wojtyla before he became pope in the Beskidy Mountains, trips that were filled with praying and religious discussions. It includes pictures of her family with the pope at the Vatican and vacationing in Castel Gandolfo, the papal holiday residence outside Rome.

It includes her diary entries from trips she took after he was elected pope to the places where they had vacationed, where she reminisces with great longing about their times together. She writes detailed descriptions of the places for the pope, who, ensconced in the Vatican, would write to her of how much he missed the mountains and rivers.

And it contains letters back to Poltawska, including one in which John Paul said he believed God had given her to him as his project, considering her difficult personality and her haunting Ravensbrueck past.

Amazon notes another book she published, And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, over two decades ago.  It seems she has written more, too (one article refers to “several books about children”), but I suspect if it hasn’t been translated from the Polish, it won’t be on Amazon.

Something scandalous going on?  No.  There is no one who is suggesting that the relationship between Karol Wojtyla and Wanda Poltawska was inappropriate, romantic, or sexual in nature.  Her husband was also a close friend of Wojtyla.

So what’s the big deal?  Ya got me.

Why is she being criticized?  Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz has publicly criticized her for publishing the letters and for exaggerating the relationship.  (Dziwisz served John Paul II for many decades as his private secretary, long before he even become pope.)  He comments in one interview: “That was his [John Paul II’s] secret: to make all those who were dear to him feel like they had a special relationship with him.  The difference is that Ms. Poltawska exaggerates in her attitude, and the expressions and display of her behavior are inappropriate and out of place.”  

This is could be true, is certainly believable, and Dziwisz, if anyone, is in a position to say.  Then again, the woman was allowed access to the guy at his deathbed.  And several other people whose take on the issue carry great weight have contradicted Dziwisz.

Poltawska has also been criticized by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, recently retired head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who says she should have turned the letters in to the Vatican as part of their JP2 sainthood investigation.

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