Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Dziwisz Diaries

Early March will see the English-language release of the memoir of Pope John Paul II's closest aide of four decades.

First published last year in Italian and Polish, A Life with Karol recounts the late pontiff's journey through the eyes of Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as John Paul's private secretary from 1966 until his 2005 death, functioning in turns as his principal gatekeeper, messenger, adviser, comic relief and "backdoor" through which not a few blocked through the usual Vatican channels found their way into the papal apartment. (Dziwisz is shown at left, over the Pope's shoulder.)

While the current dynamic of the Apostolic Palace sees the Secretary of State effectively functioning as this pontificate's top "deputy," few would question that John Paul's 27 year reign saw that capacity filled by the inconspicuous Pole with the booming voice who became the closest thing to family that Papa Wojtyla had. Always understood to be speaking with the pontiff's voice, "Don Stanislao," now 68, exerted unparalleled influence over matters from appointments and access to arranging John Paul's secret escapes from the Vatican's gilded cage and advancing the Pope's public support for his favored movements and causes.

Rome being Rome, a clout of this sort -- unprecedented for a papal secretary in recent times -- was bound to arouse resistance and rivalries. And when the Vatican flow-chart got in the way, John Paul revamped it in Dziwisz's favor, naming him a bishop and adjunct prefect of the Papal Household (an appointment that moved the secretary from his post's traditional assignment in the Secretariat of State). As the late Pope lay on his deathbed in his final moments, his top aide reportedly kept even his successor-to-be -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- out of the room, only admitting the future Benedict XVI and John Paul's Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano after Wojtyla breathed his last.

While the next Pope was said to be hurt by the move, he never showed it publicly, instead naming Dziwisz to the archbishopric of Krakow two months after John Paul's death and conferring the red hat on him shortly thereafter. As head of the ancient local church -- the post from which John Paul himself rose to Peter's chair -- the longtime aide has found a new life on his own as a pastor and a force in the life of the Polish church, while unfailingly promoting the legacy and sanctity of his longtime boss with an eye to his canonization.

Totaling 260 pages of brief, vivid, anecdote-filled chapters, A Life chronicles Dziwisz's memories -- and John Paul's doings -- large and small, from the late Pope's bond with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta ("God's Sister"), the force of his mystical spirituality, his "Jewish roots" and daily routine to his 1978 election, the 1981 assassination attempt and the final years of the pontiff's battle with age and Parkinson's disease.

Despite being sought out by almost every world leader and living down the hall from some of civilization's most priceless cultural treasures, "he actually practiced poverty to a heroic degree," Dziwisz writes, "and did it effortlessly.

"He didn't have anything and he never asked for anything, either" he says, adding that while "as Pope his needs were provided for," in reality "he never had a cent to call his own."

Along the way, the author repeatedly underscores the "option for man" -- John Paul's impassioned, unstinting advocacy for life, for peace and for the dignity of the human person.

Presenting Wojtyla as a Gospel-rooted man of the center, Dziwisz even takes direct aim at the misconception, still operative in some quarters, that the Polish Pope's successful, long-waged crusade against Communism could be construed as a green light for unbridled, Western-style capitalism.

"Karol Wojtyla wasn't a party man," Dziwisz says. "Or, to put it bluntly, he was a man who didn't belong to either Moscow or Washington.

"He was a man of God who was always open to everyone," he added. "He was a free man. And he never let himself be governed by political choices."

Repeatedly declaring the independence of the "option for man" from the exploitation of politics and the confinement of secular ideologies, he concludes that, in his stewardship of the Magisterium, the late Pope "was progressive where he needed to be; and where necessary, he remained a traditionalist in the right sense of the word." In a separate reflection on the contemporary model of the papacy fleshed out through Wojtyla's landmark reign, his secretary writes that "the tradition John Paul II's pontificate changed was by [the time of his election] partly obsolete, if not actually indefensible."

He might've been one of the most traveled, most heard, most loved and admired luminaries to ever walk the earth, but the aide who knew him best emphasized that what kept John Paul going most lay far from the cameras, crowds and paperwork that came with the office.

"He got everything from prayer, from the encounter with the Lord," Dziwisz wrote, noting that the Pope's spirituality of "total abandonment" often found him prostrate on the floor of his private chapel when he thought no one was looking.

"He was in love with God. He lived on God. And every day, he would start over again."

Released by Doubleday, the Dziwisz memoir is but the latest ecclesiastical coup for the publisher, whose recent roster has included Raymond Arroyo's best-seller bio of the EWTN foundress Mother Angelica, the spiritual diaries of Bl Teresa of Calcutta and, of course, the first volume of Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth. With Papa Ratzi immersed in preparing the second volume of his Christ chronicle, which he's driven himself to completing within this year, the house will also drop Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput's election-year treatise on church and state; Render Unto Caesar is slated for a summer release.

Last week, the Vatican announced that B16 will again preside at an open-air Mass in St Peter's Square on 2 April to mark the anniversary of John Paul's death.

PHOTOS: AP/Paolo Cocco