The Bonds of Friendship

Great biographical memoirs can arise from lucky coincidence: familial bonds, old school ties, or professional postings allow the narrator unrivalled access to his famous subject. Dark secrets, character insights, and historical footnotes enlarge and challenge the readers’ understanding.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Doubleday, 265 pages, $25.95
Great biographical memoirs can arise from lucky coincidence: familial bonds, old school ties, or professional postings allow the narrator unrivalled access to his famous subject. Dark secrets, character insights, and historical footnotes enlarge and challenge the readers’ understanding.
Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, author of A Life with Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope, possessed an enviable perch from which to observe and share in the most intimate and profound moments of a great pontiff’s life. The personal secretary of Karol Wojtyla during his twelve years as archbishop of Krakow and for most of his long pontificate, Cardinal Dziwisz witnessed his father figure’s struggle to free their native land from communism. Dziwisz looked his boss in the eye as Wojtyla emerged from the conclave as the first Slavic pope in history. Dziwisz’s arms caught John Paul II after two bullets cut the pope down in St. Peter’s Square.
Dziwisz was there at the right time and the right place. But that significant advantage is no substitute for the gift of storytelling or for the ability to embrace new roles when required. What is most poignant regarding Dziwisz’s portrait of Karol Wojtyla is that this humble secretary, the keeper of secrets, cannot put aside his old job description and take a few steps toward center stage. The dynamism we associate with John Paul II is muffled in this disappointing recapitulation of world-changing events.
The memoir begins with considerable promise. Dziwisz puts his finger on the “mystery” of John Paul II’s specific charism with this stirring remembrance:
He showed the face of God, God’s human visage, if you will. He displayed the features of God incarnate. He thus became an interpreter and instrument of God’s Fatherhood, a man who narrowed the gap between heaven and earth, transcendence and immanence. And in so doing, he laid the groundwork for a new spirituality and a new way of living the faith in modern society.
This is the man who drew the whole world to his deathbed. John Paul sought his lost sheep in every corner of the globe. Those who stood before him felt wholly enveloped in his loving gaze, no matter the brevity of the meeting. Dziwisz thus prepares the way for a series of well-told vignettes that never really gain momentum. Any Catholic conversant with Karol Wojtyla’s journey from Krakow to Rome and beyond will enjoy no more than a handful of succulent morsels on which to feast.
Dziwisz’s choice tidbits include a compelling version of John Paul’s encounter with Mehmet Ali Agca, his incarcerated, would-be assassin. Dziwisz also reveals that the pope and his advisors briefly discussed the possibility of his resignation after Parkinsons Disease sharply restricted his movements. There is a whimsical account of the pope’s repeated — and largely successful — attempts to slip away for a day of skiing without the burden of official Vatican escorts.
John Paul’s ethos of spiritual poverty lingers in descriptions of his austere Vatican apartments and of anguished encounters with the poor in the developing world. Faced with the desperate living conditions in one shantytown, John Paul pulls off his papal ring and hands it to the people before him. After visiting Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying in Calcutta, he reportedly tells its founder, “If I could, I would make this my headquarters as Pope.”
Not surprisingly, Dziwisz employs his memoir as a forum for settling old scores. In one chapter, he contends that the Vatican never funded Poland’s Solidarity movement. Elsewhere, he argues that the pope was a man of the Second Vatican Council, not a reactionary opposed to its teachings as some critics aver. Furthermore, John Paul was right to oppose both the first war in the Persian Gulf, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Dziwisz occasionally hits his target, but others have defended John Paul’s mission in the world and in the church with more brilliance. What the author does convey beautifully, if indirectly, is his subject’s “spiritual paternity.” John Paul leads, instructs, inspires and admonishes his spiritual children. Upon his death, the entire church mourns his passing — not out of duty, but in a visceral way.
Yet if we acutely feel the late pontiff’s absence, imagine what Dziwisz experienced when he said goodbye. Never again would his father’s gaze touch his soul. True, the common faith of both men leads the survivor to anticipate the glory of their next meeting. For now, though, Dziwisz remains anchored in this world, and so he worries about John Paul’s pilgrimage into eternity: “Who is accompanying him on the other side?” the faithful secretary muses.

Joan Frawley Desmond


Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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