Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Revealing Letters

I watched with considerable interest on Monday night the Panorama programme dealing with the close friendship over a 30 yr. period between Pope John Paul II and a polish √©migr√© Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

The friendship started in the early 1970's before Karol Wojtyla  became Pope (in 1978).

He had written a book - later to become in English "The Acting Person", which caught the attention of Tymieniecka, now married in the US and a distinguished philosopher in her own right.

She wrote then to Wojtyla suggesting a collaboration in bringing forth a new updated English edition of the book. Then, meeting on a fairly regular basis over the next few years an intense relationship of both an intellectual and emotional nature was forged between them.

And this relationship was to continue after Wojtyla became Pope until his death in 2005.
The letters which Wojtyla wrote - 350 in all - were handed over by Tymieniecka to the Polish Library in 2008. Intriguingly, her own letters - apparently more openly passionate in nature - have not yet been made available.

No doubt fears that their content could raise serious questions regarding the very appropriateness of the relationship are not far from the Church's thinking. For after all, we are talking about the relationship of a married woman with a man who has become a canonised saint in record time!

It has long been apparent that Wojtyla was a man of exceptional gifts.

From one perspective he was the real outdoor type, talented at football when he was young and who loved to ski in the mountains and go kayaking.

Then he was blessed with artistic talents, with a previous history as an aspiring actor and a man who also was given to writing poetry.

Perhaps even more he was deeply intellectual with a huge interest in bringing philosophy and theology to bear on the intrinsic meaning of life. Having been very much influenced myself by the same mystic, in this regard I was especially interested to later learn that his doctorate thesis was on faith in the life of St. John of the Cross!

Above all, he clearly possessed an all-consuming spiritual drive which enabled him - to a heroic degree - to integrate his enormous gifts in the service of humanity.

And having been tested in so many ways through the dark days of his country's occupation, there was the ring of genuine authenticity about this man, which I would find impossible to dispute.

What was also remarkable, is that this humanity could flourish in the absence of normal emotional supports, for Woytyla had lost most of his family at a comparatively early age.

Now one can easily surmise therefore that for healthy development it would have been necessary for Wojtyla to substitute other friendships for the lack of members of his own family, and this perhaps provides additional perspective on his friendship with Tymieniecka.

Unfortunately the Catholic Church as an institution has never been able to openly address the importance of healthy psycho sexual development for its ordained priests. And this problem has been directly associated with the exclusion of women - not only from ministry - but from all substantial decision-making within the Church.

Though I certainly agree that celibacy still has an important role in priestly ministry, in truth it can only be freely exercised by a very limited number of men.

Therefore most priests I believe grow to discover their celibacy - even when technically remaining faithful to their vows - as an enforced burden (for which they have no genuine vocation).

There are of course exceptions and clearly I would see Wojtyla falling into this category. However even here for important development, it is vital that sufficient outlets be found for intimate friendships where psycho-sexual emotional development can naturally be given space to flourish.

However as perhaps demonstrated in Wojtyla's case, even this can prove somewhat problematic.

It seems clear to me from what has revealed in his letters that he was able to freely accept the friendship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka - despite at times its troubling emotional intensity - as a special gift from God, which would enrich his overall experience and in turn his capacity to serve others.

What is not at all so clear is that the same applied on the other side. In fact it would appear that we have the case of a married woman who at some stage became romantically involved with Wojtyla in a manner that was potentially unhealthy given his commitment to celibacy and her own status as a married woman. And it is easy to understand why this could have happened as Wojtyla was a man who really had so much to offer (spiritually, intellectually and emotionally).

And I suspect that this situation is repeated time after time in friendships between priests and married women (even when the priest remains committed to his celibate state).

Now in ideal circumstances, one could surmise that perhaps the most successful friendship would require that both parties share the same celibate vocation and possess the psychological maturity to deal with the close intimacy that a very special friendship can bring.

However in most circumstances this may constitute an impractical ideal regarding celibate friendships, which  - while perhaps promising great moments of joy and revelation - can always remain messy and difficult in so many ways.

This is why I think that genuine celibacy is a relatively rare gift, with few psychologically capable of dealing positively with the limitations that the state enforces.

In recent years we have seen in the Catholic Church one awful legacy of this steadfast refusal to face the importance of healthy emotional development for its priests in a litany of perverted child abuse.

And this issue will never be successfully faced while attempting to justify the gross inequality of excluding women completely from priestly ministry (and in turn all significant power structures within the Church). In this regard, I would find myself - despite my admiration for him in personal terms - totally at variance with the views of Wojtyla (as Pope John Paul II).

The response of the official Church in relation to Wojtyla's friendship with Tymieniecka was firstly to  airbrush recognition of her from his life and when this was no longer possible to downplay its significance.
It is not even clear if the many letters (on both sides) relating to their intense friendship, were even examined prior to his canonisation, which was conducted with unseemly haste!

Perhaps it was as a reaction to this treatment that Tymieniecka decided after John Paul's death to make her letters available to a Polish University (though it seems most unseemly that this involved a sale for a seven figure sum of money!)

Of course we have only yet been made aware of Wojtyla's letters.  We have not yet seen Tymieniecka's letters, which may be much less guarded in expression.

Inevitably, I think these will raise important questions regarding the true nature of their friendship. Unfortunately however, these questions are most unlikely to have ready answers!