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Letters from Pope John Paul II reveal friendship with married woman

February 21, 2016 at 2:58 PM EDT
A new documentary, the subject of an upcoming PBS program, sheds light on a three-decade-long friendship between Pope John Paul II and a Polish-American philosopher, Anna Teresa Timenyeska. In this excerpt from "The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II," researchers sift through 350 letters exchanged between the late pontiff and Timenyeska from 1973 to 2003.

ED STOURTON: I’m Edward Stourton, a British journalist, and I knew from researching my biography of John Paul II that Anna Teresa Tyemienecka had collaborated with Karol Wojtyla – as he was known before he became Pope – on one of his books, The Acting Person. She died two years ago, and she might have taken the full story of their long relationship to the grave, but in 2008, a New York based expert in rare manuscripts received an unusual phone call.

MARSHA MALINOWSKI: I was asked to get on a plane and go to New Hampshire to look at some letters from Pope John Paul II. The first thing that comes to mind, it’s got to be wrong, it’s fake, it can’t be right. Then, all of a sudden you walk in and you see the items and there’s no doubt that they are right.

NARRATOR: Marsha Malinovski negotiated a private sale and the letters were sent to John Paul’s native Poland. I tracked them down in Warsaw, the Polish capital and established they were bought for a seven figure sum for the Polish National Library.

They’ve been here ever since, unknown to the public. But after long negotiations the library allowed us to see and indeed film, Karol Wojtyla’s letters to Anna Teresa Tyemienecka.

The story they tell begins here, at the Archbishop’s Palace in Krakow.

VOICE OVER: Dear Madam professor, I received your message on the twelfth of July but because I’ve been away from Krakow, I am only answering now. I propose that we meet and talk on the twenty ninth of July.

NARRATOR: Karol Wojtyla’s guest here that summer evening was married, in her mid-fifties and a professional philosopher. Like him she had attended Krakow’s famous Jagellonian University, before studying abroad and settling in the United States.

And she had got in touch with the cardinal because she admired a book of philosophy that he’d written.

ED STOURTON: It’s a wonderful picture isn’t it?

NARRATOR: Bill and Jadviga Smith, both academics based in New England, became Anna Teresa’s close friends towards the end of her life and are the executors of her will.

ED STOURTON: When she did write to Cardinal Wojtyla, she wrote the book and then wrote to him and said, can I meet you? It’s just the sort of impulsiveness in the way she –

JADVIGA SMITH: Yes and no. It wasn’t necessarily well here she starts because she spotted the book and it would be nice to write to this Cardinal or bishop. Here, here is the book, let me just fix it in English.

BILL SMITH: Yes, he was interested in having his ideas promulgated in the West.

ED STOURTON: But I’m still struck, it was quite a thing to get on a plane. Was that…?

BILL SMITH: That was not unusual for her.

JADVIGA SMITH: Not at all.

BILL SMITH: Friend and Executor of Anna-Teresa’s estate
…to get on a plane and do something like this, this was part of her character. That’s the way she tackled everything.

NARRATOR: At first the letters focused on philosophy. They traded ideas in the way you might expect from two deep thinkers.

VOICE OVER: I have been thinking about the possibility of a deeper philosophical conversation. Thank you for the article, “The Three Dimensions of Phenomenology”, ontological and transcendental…

NARRATOR: Soon, they were meeting regularly and writing to each other often. But this was the 1970s – in the deep chill of the Cold War years, and communist Poland was an atheist police state.

NARRATOR: In October 1974, a little over a year after first meeting Anna Teresa Tymienecka, Cardinal Wojtyla travelled to Rome for a big conference of bishops – and he took a bundle of her letters with him.

He stayed for more than a month at the Polish College where Polish student priests normally lodge in Rome. Here he could answer Anna-Teresa’s letters safe from the prying eyes of the secret police. And – for the first time – he dropped her academic titles and addressed her simply as…

VOICE OVER: Dear Teresa Anna, I would like to reply to four of your letters I received in July. I didn’t post them before as I didn’t trust the Polish post office…

NARRATOR: Eugene Kizluk studied the letters in preparation for the sale.

GENE KISLUK: This is very much the first informal letter that he wrote to her.

VOICE OVER: I have brought them with me to Rome, and I am reading them again. They are so meaningful and personal.

NARRATOR: By now Karol Wojtyla and Anna Teresa Tyemienecka had a joint project, and English language version of the book that first inspired her to get in touch with him. It was to be more than a straightforward translation. She wanted to develop and refine his ideas.

And that meant intense discussions during long hours together. They would meet regularly in Rome and Poland and even when they were seeing each other every day, they would sometimes wrote before and after their meetings.

VOICE OVER: I was very happy to see you yesterday. I would like to talk to you tomorrow…
I’m coming back this afternoon, we could continue our conversation… Father Dziwisz will deliver this letter. It is good that we could talk on the phone before your departure.

GENE KISLUK: Their relationship was on two plains. One was intellectual, the other one was personal and very emotional. They became very close to each other, on both levels in fact. The two mixed up and it was also very difficult for them to separate the two.

NARRATOR: In New York, I sought out the one journalist who had some sense of the importance of the relationship. The veteran reporter, Carl Bernstein, interviewed Professor Tyemienecka when he was writing his John Paul biography. And she told him about her correspondence with the Pope.

CARL BERNSTEIN: Right away when I went to see her Madam Tyemeniscka as she refers to herself, in Pomfret, she immediately referred to this correspondence and in fact read me one of the Pope’s letters to her as a kind of way of buttressing her claim to being so important in his life.

NARRATOR: That was two decades ago. And when he asked her about her feelings, she swatted the question away.

CARL BERNSTEIN: I said to her, were you in love with Wojtyla? And she says, no I never fell in love with the Cardinal. How could I fall with a middle-aged clergyman, I am still considered a beautiful woman and I’m surrounded by young and handsome men.

To fall in love with a clergyman? There could be no success at all. And I said, no romantic feelings? She said, this question, it doesn’t really apply. How can you ask me such a silly question.

MARSHA MALINOWSKI: For her to fall in love with him is completely understandable to me. He was handsome, he was powerful, he was on a track that was extraordinary. He was Polish. How could you not be taken with that, all that charm in one person?

NARRATOR: There is nothing in Karol Wojtyla’s letters to suggest he broke his vow of celibacy – and everything we know about this iron-willed man suggests he would have kept it.

NARRATOR: In October, the Princes of the Church were back in Rome for another conclave. Choosing a new Pope for the second time in less than two months.

On the third day at just after twenty past six in the evening, the white smoke rose from the chimney in the corner of St Peter’s Square, announcing the election of the first non Italian Pope for four hundred and fifty five years.

In the papal apartments, Karol Wojtyla, now Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, wrote almost immediately to Anna Teresa Tyemienecka.

VOICE OVER: Dear Teresa Anna, I’m writing after the event. I promise I will remember everything at this new stage of my journey. The whole thing is written too deeply into my life for me to do otherwise.