Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
February 14, 2014
When I first read John Paul II’s last will and testament published a few days after his death, I was disappointed to see that he had never amended what he had written in 1979: “Let my personal notes be burned. I ask that Fr. Stanislaw see to this and I thank him for his help and collaboration.”
I thought it was a shame that these personal notes would go up in smoke. In 1995, John Paul II had told his biographer George Weigel that too many people err because “they try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside.” I thought these notes would be one of the most important means for grasping John Paul II from the inside.
Two months later, however, my sadness turned to joy.
During a press conference the day after he was appointed Archbishop of Krakow, the former “Fr. Stanislaw” Dziwisz, John Paul II’s personal secretary for 39 years, said that he had not followed through on John Paul II’s request.
“Nothing has been burned,” he declared. “Nothing is fit for burning. Everything should be preserved and kept for history, for future generations, every single sentence. These are great riches that should gradually be made available to the public.”
After those two personal notebooks containing John Paul II’s thoughts from 1962-2003 were considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints during John Paul II’s canonization process, they have now indeed been made available to the public in the 640-page book “I Am Very Much in God’s Hands,” published in Polish on Feb. 5.
The publication has created enormous controversy in Poland, and the protest and praise have begun to spill over into other countries.
Cardinal Dziwisz anticipated some of the criticism. He wrote in the book’s preface that he simply did not have the “courage to burn the notebooks” because they contained “important information” about John Paul II’s life as well as the “key to his spirituality.” He added, “What had to be destroyed, was destroyed. And what had to be saved, for the benefit of humankind, has been saved.”
He stated during a January 22 press conference that he was explicitly motivated by the “despair of historians” at the destruction of the wartime letters and notebooks of Pope Pius XII in accordance with the Pope’s wishes. “It would be a crime” to destroy works that testify to spiritual depth of John Paul II, he concluded.
That didn’t mollify the concerns of one well-known priest, Fr. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, who is leading a boycott of the publisher (Znak) and claiming that the publication will damage the faith not only by failing to respect the wishes of the dead but also by “consciously violating the pope’s will.” He said Cardinal Dziwisz’ “public act of disobedience is a form of anti-witness that can’t be justified by any explanation that it’s for the good of the church. Does a cleric serving as a secretary know better than St. Peter’s successor?”
But Fr. Adam Boniecki, who edited the “Kalendarium” or public diary of the life of Karol Wojtyla from his youth through his papal election, said that, even though he initially had misgivings, he now applauds Cardinal Dziwisz’s decision. “I admit that without having read the book, I was unpleasantly surprised with the decision. After reading the notebooks, however, I am grateful to him for having taken the risk of following his own conscience and not being a scrupulous bureaucrat.”
Fr. Boniecki’s comments point to what I think is the main issue. When someone — from a pauper to a prince to a pope — writes something in a will, or otherwise makes known what he or she desires to be done posthumously, must we do it (presuming it is not illegal or immoral)? Must that expressed desire be the final and only word? Is it even possible for God to overrule such a decision, speaking, for example, through the conscience of the one entrusted by the deceased to carry out his or her wishes?
This is not an infrequent concern. For example, when a Catholic tells his family that after he dies he wants to have his cremated ashes scattered on a beach, must the nearest of kin carry out those wishes, even though they’re inconsistent with reverence for the dead and therefore explicitly against Church discipline that requires cremains to be buried in the ground, in a columbarium, or intact at sea? Or can the survivors overrule those wishes, recognizing that their loved one would have wanted to die and be buried as a good Catholic should?
Most families in these circumstances grasp that God, speaking through the clear discipline of the Church he founded, should be obeyed and that their deceased loved one would never have wanted to put them into a situation in which they might be disobeying God in order to execute his or her wishes.
Cardinal Dziwsiz recognized this truth. “In writing his will,” he noted in the preface to the book, “the Holy Father knew was entrusting the notebooks to someone who would treat them responsibly.” It would have been very easy, after all, for the Pope himself to have destroyed the notebooks at any point in the almost 27 years of his papacy. He didn’t, because, at least implicitly, part of him knew that this chronicle of who he is on the inside was worth preserving at least until his death. And so he made his wishes clear but he essentially left the final decision to his faithful collaborator.
He knew his secretary’s character better than anyone, and that he was absolutely not a “scrupulous bureaucrat.” He also saw that, at least in this instance, a “cleric serving as a secretary” might in fact be able to discern better than St. Peter’s successor what would objectively be for the greater glory of God and the good of the Church. And so he entrusted the notebooks to someone who would be attentive not just to the Pope’s wishes but also responsive to the Pope’s Boss’ wishes.
Thank God he did.