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John Paul and priestly isolation

19 February 2016

The late pope seems to have cherished an emotional companion, says Paul Vallely

DID Pope John Paul II have a secret lover? That question was asked by several newspapers and websites in half-baked previews of the BBC broadcaster Edward Stourton’s extraordinary disclosure that more than 350 letters were written by Pope John Paul to an attractive, vivacious, married Polish philosopher, Professor Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

In the event, the BBC made no suggestion that the pontiff ever broke his vow of celibacy. And yet the intimacy and intensity of the couple’s relationship raises important questions about celibacy, fidelity, and the emotional intelligence of the priesthood.

The letters, and the testimony of close friends who survive her, suggest that Teresa-Anna — as the Pope called her — fell in love with him when he was Archbishop of Krakow in the 1970s. A passionate relationship ensued for 32 years. We heard only from the Pope’s letters, not hers to him, but it seems clear that she declared her love for him, and he wrestled with how to respond.

“You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words,” he wrote. “The words ‘I belong to you’ woke a great tenderness in me but at the same time an enormous anxiety.”

Most priests, confronted with such passion, would have broken off the relationship. But John Paul continued it, inviting her to go skiing, hiking, and even camping with him. In one letter, he wrote: “It was good you sent your letter by hand — it contains things too deep for the censor’s eyes.” He spoke of “issues which are too difficult for me to write about”.

Eventually he wrote: “I was looking for an answer to these words ‘I belong to you’ and finally I found a way — a scapular.” He gave her the devotional object that was his most treasured possession; his father had given him the scapular when he made his first communion. John Paul had worn it against his skin ever since. “I feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, when you are close, and when you are far away,” he wrote.

We were not told what Teresa’s husband made of all this. What impact can the intensity of such a relationship, and her frequent trips abroad, have had on her husband, and on the quality of her marriage? Fidelity is emotional as well as sexual; for many, emotional detachment is a deeper betrayal even than sexual duplicity.

For a pope, who sits at the head of celibate clergy, it raises questions about priestly isolation and loneliness. The need for relationship and companionship is psychologically far more profound than the focus on sex that is assumed in most discussions about celibacy. Was John Paul’s solution paid for at the cost of an emotional fidelity in Teresa’s marriage?

The Pope reconciled all this by calling her “a gift from God” to him. He wrote: “If I did not have this conviction, some moral certainty of Grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this.” This “Grace is stronger than our weaknesses,” he wrote. But it is hard not to conclude that the pontiff was playing with fire.


Paul Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.


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