BBC’s Panorama found evidence of an intense relationship ‘but nothing that invalidated his sainthood’
Pop John Paul II had a close relationship with a married woman which lasted over 30 years, according to a BBC One Panorama documentary screened on Monday and available on the BBC iPlayer.
The documentary, by Ed Stourton a distinguished contributor to Catholic publications like The Tablet and a presenter on BBC Radio 4 Today programme, did not attempt to claim the late Pope ever broke his vow of celibacy with Polish-born philosopher and writer Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
John Paul II was pope from 1978 to 2005 and was made a saint by the Catholic Church nine years after his death. Anna-Teresa died in 2014.
More than 350 letters were found at the National Library of Poland, the first dated in 1973 and the last a few months before his death in 2005. They reflect his side of the correspondence and the relationship but not Anna-Teresa’s. The documentary features writer and journalist Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, who interviewed her for the book His Holiness in the 1990s.
He says: “We are talking about Saint John Paul. This is an extraordinary relationship. It’s not illicit, nonetheless it’s fascinating. It changes our perception of him.”
Mr. Stourton says that despite the evidence of a very close relationship: “Nothing I have found would have been an obstacle to his canonisation.” The two friends went camping, on country walks and on skiing trips, and, said the BBC, the correspondence suggested quite intense feelings.
More than friends but less than lovers
“I would say they were more than friends but less than lovers,” said Mr. Stourton.
He said the letters paint a picture of a very intense relationship which mixed emotion and philosophical ideas in proper Christian boundaries. The documentary quoted from one letter from September 1976 in which he called her a “gift from God”.
“My dear Teresa,” he wrote. “You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words.”
“Already last year I was looking for an answer to these words, ‘I belong to you’, and finally, before leaving Poland, I found a way – a scapular.
“The dimension in which I accept and feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, when you are close, and when you are far away,” he adds.
The scapular had been given to Karol Wojtyla by his father for his First Holy Communion, Mr. Stourton said Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was a great hoarder, and appears to have kept everything relating to her 32-year friendship with Saint John Paul. After her death, a huge cache of photographs was found showing the man the world knew as the Pope on the ski slopes, wearing shorts on a lake-side camping trip, and, in old age, entertaining privately in his humble living quarters.
In 2008 she sold her archive of letters to the National Library of Poland for a seven figure sum but the letters were kept from public view until seen by the BBC.
When the two met in 1973, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the Archbishop of Krakow. Anna- Teresa Tymienieck, Polish by birth, had endured the Nazi occupation of World War Two but studied abroad and pursued a successful academic career as a philosopher in the United States, where she married and had three children. Cardinal Wojtyla and Anna- Teresa Tymieniecka worked together for four years on an English-language version of a book on philosophy he wrote while teaching at Lublin University.
She rushed it into print and the Vatican mounted a legal challenge claiming his views had been misrepresented. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka has been mentioned in passing in in several John Paul biographies, said Mr. Stourton, but, he said, their relationship was much deeper and more complex, and continued for far longer than has previously been recognised.
Catholic Church was the enemy
“In 1970s Poland any relationship between a clergyman and a woman was risky. The communist regime in Warsaw regarded the Catholic Church as the enemy, and the secret police – the SB, as they were known – watched its leaders constantly. Dr Marek Lasota, who has been studying communist-era files at the Institute of National Remembrance in Krakow, says the SB took a particularly close interest in Cardinal Wojtyla.
“They installed wiretaps in his flat and his telephone was bugged. Every letter was intercepted and checked, both private and official.”
“The first hint of any real intimacy comes in a letter sent not from Krakow, but from Rome, where Cardinal Wojtyla spent more than a month attending a meeting of Catholic bishops in the autumn of 1974. He took several of her letters with him so that he could answer them ‘without using the mail’, and writes that they are ‘so meaningful and deeply personal, even if they are written in philosophical ‘code’”.
Towards the end of the letter he adds that “there are issues which are too difficult for me to write about”.
“I have only seen one side of the correspondence – his letters to her – and it is, of course, sometimes impossible to know what the cardinal is referring to. But I have done some old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing, and I believe that at an early stage of the relationship – probably in the summer of 1975 – Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka told Karol Wojtyla that she was in love with him.
He later told her that it allowed him to “accept and feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, whether you are close, or far away”.
Cardinal Wojtyla had a number of female friends, including Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist with whom he also corresponded for decades but his letters to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka are at times more intensely emotional, sometimes wrestling with the meaning of their relationship.
In a piece for the BBC News website to accompany the programme Mr. Stourton wrote: “In the summer of 1976 Cardinal Wojtyla was chosen to lead a delegation of Polish bishops to a big Catholic gathering in the United States, and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka invited him to stay with her family at their country home outside the tiny town of Pomfret in Vermont.
“It was just the sort of outdoor life he enjoyed, and photographs that I think were taken at the time show him at his most relaxed. It also seems that she made a further declaration of her feelings for him while he was there, because the letter he wrote to her afterwards suggests he was struggling to make sense of the relationship in Christian terms.
“He tells her she is a gift from God, and goes on: ‘If I did not have this conviction, some moral certainty of Grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this’.”
“When he was elected Pope, John Paul wrote to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka to say that he wanted their connection to continue. He said he did not want “the exchange of ideas, which I have always thought to be so creative and fruitful” to be interrupted.
“But they fell out badly over the book they had been working on together. She rushed it into print, but the Vatican mounted a legal challenge against it, and she was accused of having distorted the new Pope’s ideas. When John Paul failed to stick up for her, she felt betrayed.
“Eventually the old warmth returned to the relationship, and some of the most touching photographs and letters we have been able to see relate to his old age. “John Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s, and became increasingly isolated in the Vatican. She visited him often, and sent him pressed flowers and photographs from her home at Pomfret.
“In one letter he told her: ‘I am thinking about you, and in my thoughts I come to Pomfret every day.’ And his letters include frequent references to their shared past. After his last visit to Poland in 2002 he wrote: ‘Our mutual homeland; so many places where we met, where we had conversations which were so important to us, where we experienced the beauty of God’s presence’.”
Anna-Teresa’s husband, Hendrik Houthakker, was a distinguished Harvard economist. After the collapse of communism, he advised John Paul on post communist economies, and the Pope granted him a papal knighthood in recognition of his services. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka visited John Paul the day before he died in 2005.
Watch the Panorama programme on BBC iPlayer