Sunday, September 20, 2009

Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II

By Gian Franco Svidercoschi, Liguori, 150 pages.

[O]ne could say that Karol Wojtyla summed up in himself, in his person, in his life, the collective destiny of twentieth-century humanity,” writes Svidercoschi.

The continuing fascination with the early life of the late pontiff probably has to do with just this: That his difficult and sometimes very sad life (he lost his mother at the age of nine) contained so much of the suffering of humanity. The mystery of his life is how he kept his faith and turned it into such an inspiration for millions of people.

How did this early suffering make him mature beyond his years at such a young age and push him into becoming such an effective witness to the gospel? Though journalists can speak to countless of his early friends, this inner life remains beyond our understanding.

The author thus uses his imagination to give the reader a sense of Father Karol's early life, such as his first experience as a parish priest: “That day, July 28, 1948, Karol had set out early in the morning, full of curiosity and, above all, intensely excited. Niegowic is fifteen miles from Cracow, located a little way past the salt mines of Wieliczka; but the trip would have lasted an eternity. The bus took quite a while to get to Gdow. And at Gdow the bus line ended, and one had to continue on foot.”

These above words express the lost world into which the late pontiff was born and grew up. At Karol's high school, for instance, there were two Greek professors. Greek, Latin, Polish, and history would have been the core curriculum, and “natural science” would have been of secondary importance.

Svidercoschi intertwines the evil geopolitics of the Nazis and Communists with this small-town personal life. At the time of the Nazis, and around the time of his father's death, Karol Wojtyla the university student made the acquaintance of a genuine mystic, Jan Tyranowski, who had a profound impact on many pious young men, including Karol: “The God that Jan showed them—bearing witness with his words and his conduct—was not the God of theological discourses or books by priests, Instead, he was a God with whom a person could live day by day, but he happened to be the God of which they were not yet aware.”

The chapter on Tyranowski exemplifies the importance the author gives to the people Karol Wojtyla had met. Wojtyla became a priest because of certain pious people: his father, Tyranowski, a favorite priest to whom he monthly went for confession, and the archbishop of Krakow, Adam Sapieha.

The young Wojtyla was also bookish, and “began to devour the books that Jan had given him, especially in the factory, sitting by the boiler, in the breaks at work.”

Stories of Karol does not offer any new information about the late pontiff, but is a small and charming book nonetheless. It is an easy read and its characters display the warmth and humanity of a bygone, pre-technocratic era. In this sense it is important for understanding the romantic view of Poland Pope John Paul II had.

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