The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently accessed hundreds of letters and photographs that narrate the story of Pope John Paul II’s intense friendship with an American academic that lasted over 30 years. The pontiff’s letters to Polish-born Anna Teresa Tymieniecka had been held from public viewing at the National Library of Poland for many years. They are believed to have revealed a very different side of the man who passed away in 2005. However, there is little evidence that suggests the Pope broke his vow of celibacy. The BBC accessed these documents as part of its research for a documentary titled “The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II,” which will examine the relationship between the pontiff and Tymieniecka, who was married at the time.
Reportedly the friendship between the two started to blossom in 1973 when Tymieniecka got in touch with the future pontiff, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla –who was then the Archbishop of Krakow– regarding a book on philosophy that he had penned. The 50-year-old is believed to have travelled from the United States to Poland thereafter to discuss his philosophies with Tymieniecka. A brief while later the duo started to correspond regularly. Even though the first few letters seemed formal, the latter ones revealed a rather intimate friendship between the two. They decided to work on an expanded translation of Wojtyla’s book titled “The Acting Person.” They continued to visit one another, sometimes in the presence of his secretary and sometimes not.
Tymieniecka, who is believed to have hailed from an aristocratic family, was described by author John Cornwell as being subtle, sexually attractive and with a great force of character.
“She spent hundreds of hours with him, sometimes with his secretary present, but often alone,” Cornwell wrote in his book, “The Pope In Winter: The Dark Face Of John Paul II’s Papacy.”
In one letter dated 1974, the pontiff wrote that he was rereading four of Tymieniecka’s letters, all of which she wrote in one month, because they were ‘very meaningful and deeply personal’.
Pictures that have never been viewed before by the public reveal Wojtyla at his most relaxed. Tymieniecka is seen accompanying the pontiff on skiing holidays, country walks, group camping trips as well as the Vatican.
“Here is one of the handful of transcendentally great figures in public life in the 20th Century –the head of the Catholic Church– in an intense relationship with an attractive woman,” said Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University.
In 1976, when Wojtyla attended a Catholic conference in the United States, Tymieniecka reportedly invited him to stay with her family at their country home in New England. At this point, she is believed to have expressed intense feelings for him, as his letter to her immediately afterwards suggests a man struggling to make sense of their friendship in Christian terms.
In one letter, dated September 1976, he described her as a gift from God, writing, “My dear Teresa, I have received all three letters. You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words.”
The BBC has not yet seen any of Tymieniecka’s letters sent to the Pope. Apparently, copies of them were included in an archive that was sold by Tymieniecka to the Polish National Library in 2008, six years before her demise. Yet, they were not found among the Pope’s letters when the BBC viewed them.
Marsha Malinowski, a dealer of rare manuscripts who arranged the sale of the letters, said that she trusts Tymieniecka fell in love with Wojtyla in the early days of their friendship.
“I think that it's completely reflected in the correspondence,” she told the BBC.
According to the letters exchanged, Wojtyla gifted Tymieniecka one of his most prized possessions, a scapular; a tiny devotional neckpiece that is supposed to be worn around the shoulders.
In a letter dated 10 September 1976, he wrote, “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… It allows me to accept and feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, whether you are close - or far away.”
Wojtyla is known to have had several female friends, including psychiatrist Wanda Poltawska, with whom he corresponded for decades as well. However, his letters to Tymieniecka seem far more intensely emotional, occasionally fighting even to make sense of the nature of their relationship.
After becoming Pope he wrote to her, “I am writing after the event, so that the correspondence between us should continue. I promise I will remember everything at this new stage of my journey.”
Pope John Paul II, who passed away in 2005 after almost 27 years of reign, was declared a saint in 2014. Even though the process of sainthood happens to be rather long and costly, his was fast-tracked in only nine years. Typically, the Vatican is supposed to review all private and public writings of a candidate while considering him or her for sainthood, but the BBC was not able to confirm whether these letters had been seen at all.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints said it is the prerogative of individual Catholics to decide which documents to send to the Vatican for reviewing.
“All our duties were done,” it told the BBC in a statement. “All private documents sent by faithful as a response to the edict, and documents found in important archives were studied.”
The National Library of Poland argued that the relationship shared by the pontiff and Tymieniecka was unique, elucidating it to be one of the many warm friendships he enjoyed throughout his life; while a source at the Vatican dismissed the contents of the letters and the photographs as being more smoke than fire.
Photo Credits: Thanhnien News