WARSAW – One of the cardinal rules in the Catholic church: obedience to the pope. So it has come as a shock for many in the Catholic world that John Paul II’s most trusted confidant has betrayed the beloved pontiff’s last will and testament by publishing personal notes he wanted burned.
Deep moral dilemmas were at stake for Stanislaw Dziwisz in his decision to publish — between loyalty and conscience, the wishes of the pope and the obligations of history.
John Paul ordered the notes burned after his death and put Dziwisz, his secretary, in charge of the task. To everyone’s surprise, Dziwisz, now a cardinal, said recently that he “did not have the courage” to destroy the notes and is having them published as a precious insight into the inner life of the beloved pontiff, who will be declared a saint in April.
The book — “Very Much in God’s Hands. Personal Notes 1962-2003” — will be released in Poland on Wednesday.
So far, criticism has outpaced praise.
“I don’t think it is right for a church member to go against the will and authority of the pope, whatever the reason,” Ewelina Gniewnik said as she was leaving Savior’s Church in downtown Warsaw. “I’m not sure that Cardinal Dziwisz knows what he is doing.”
The Polish-language book contains religious meditations that Karol Wojtyla recorded between July 1962 and March 2003 — spanning a period in which he went from being a bishop in Poland to a globe-trotting superstar pope. There are plans to publish the book in English and other languages, but no details have been fixed.
The decision to publish does not go against papal infallibility, which contrary to popular belief applies only to matters of church doctrine. And Dziwisz was also free to follow his conscience — since the obligation to obey the pope ends with his death or retirement.
Still, some are expressing shock that a trusted aide would defy the orders of the pope, especially on a matter as sacred as a will — with the Internet flooded with angry comments against Dziwisz.
The book itself may be a tough slog for ordinary readers. It runs to 640 pages and consists of deeply religious, compact, sometimes arcane ideas or trains of thought that spring from citations from the Bible. Priests, theologians and philosophers will be inspired — the layperson will likely find it opaque.
However, one cryptic remark about sinful priests, registered in March 1981, perhaps gains new significance under the flood of pedophilia cases against Roman Catholic clergy.
“The social aspect of sin,” wrote John Paul, “hurts the Church as a community. Especially a sin by a priest.”
There have been other cases in history in which executors defied instructions of famous people to destroy their work.
Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, published his father’s unfinished work “The Original of Laura” — which Nabokov had left instructions to burn — and justified the act by saying he didn’t want to go down in history as a “literary arsonist.”
Dziwisz was prepared for accusations of betrayal.
He was John Paul’s personal secretary and closest aide for almost 40 years in Poland and at the Vatican, where — Vatican experts say — he made key decisions in the pope’s waning years. After John Paul’s death in 2005 at age 84, he was made Archbishop of Krakow, in southern Poland, where he is building a museum memorial to the Polish pope. The book’s proceeds are to go to the memorial.
“I had no doubt,” he said recently. “These notes are so important, they say so much about the spiritual side, about the person, about the great pope, that it would have been a crime to destroy them.” He noted the despair of historians after Pope Pius XII’s letters were burnt.
Respected church commentator, the Rev. Adam Boniecki, wrote in a Polish Catholic weekly that he was at first “surprised in an unpleasant way” by Dziwisz’s decision, but after reading the book “I am grateful to him for having taken the risk of following his own conscience and not being a meticulous formalist.”
Some ordinary worshippers were also supportive.
“The teaching and prayers of our pope are most precious to us and we should study them with attention,” said Maria Welgo. “We should be thankful that Cardinal Dziwisz left these notes for us.”
Lawyers in Poland are not sure whether Dziwisz broke the law by disobeying the will — which explicitly said: “Burn my personal notes.” There is scant tradition in Poland of having will executors so the rules are not clear-cut.
Jacek Stokolosa of the Domanski Zakrzewski Palinka law firm said that without studying the entire will he was not even sure whether Dziwisz was an executor under Polish law.
The Rev. Jan Machniak, who wrote the preface, said that the book is intended for readers who need to bring order into their life, or need guidance in their own spiritual growth.
The book may be more surprising for what it does not contain: reference to world events and the collapse of communism in John Paul’s native Poland, which the pope played a critical role in bringing about.
But John Paul gave an enigmatic insight into his social, and possibly literary, concerns by writing about an “American female writer O’Connor” — an apparent reference to short story writer Flannery O’Connor.
“Lack of emotional approach to the human person — seemingly substituted by the notion of the ‘quality of life’ — a symptom of our times.”