Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Life with Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope

By Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, 260 pages, Doubleday.

“That reminds me of one of the Wednesday general audiences. A priest was there with a group of young women. They were all former prostitutes who had decided to turn over a totally new leaf. When their turn came, they all burst into tears. One by one, they came toward the Pope with eyes full of tears, and shame, and maybe even a bit of embarrassment. The Pope's reaction? He embraced them and gave them his blessing.”

A Life with Karol is a true insider's account of the life and pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz became Archbishop Karol Wojtyla's secretary in 1966, though they had met previously when Professor Wojtyla taught Dziwisz ethics at a Polish seminary.

Even with countless new books coming out on the late pope, this one will strike a cord with fans of John Paul II. Rather than an academic work focusing on some aspect of his philosophy or his role in geopolitics, A Life with Karol paints a picture of the spiritual practices and beliefs of the pontiff.

For instance, Dziwisz describes John Paul's habit of praying for 30 minutes or more in a prostrate position in a chapel, something that he continued to do as pope. At times during the day, when no one could find John Paul, the pope would usually be in a nearby chapel -- “in a state of total abandonment, almost of ecstasy, completely unaware of who was entering the chapel.” In his daily life, he also prayed the rosary after lunch and prayed the Stations of the Cross on Fridays, wherever he was.

Dziwisz introduces the reader to the person who was John Paul, helping us to see what he was like to meet, live with, or share dinner with: “The Pope would eat a little of everything. He wouldn't take much, but he would try everything. That was his custom, which went back to his youth during the war, when all you could get were frugal meals.... From that time on, Karol Wojtyla had maintained what we might call a certain detachment from food.”

Overlooking the entire book are the public issues that have made the public image of the late pontiff, including the Cold War and his push for Poland's spiritual and political freedom; his equal opposition to the increasing materialism and individualism of Western Europe and North America; and his emphasis on the importance of the individual.

Though not a preoccupation, the author does give us a peek at some of behind-the-scenes political moves, such as when John Paul wrote to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the early 1980s to voice his opposition to a feared Soviet invasion of Poland.

Naturally, the Cardinal describes his own emotions and last moments with Wojtyla, whom he describes as his spiritual father: “Of course he hasn't left us. We feel his presence, and we experience all the many graces obtained by his intercession.”

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