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Private Retreat

By: Michael Taube
December 11, 2017

or more than thirty years, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, kept a series of private diaries that were reflections on his daily prayers and his personal understanding of Christianity. His last entry was in 2003, roughly two years before his death. He entrusted them to StanisÅ‚aw Dziwisz, his personal secretary, and the future Archbishop of Krakow, with one condition: upon his death, “[l]et my personal notes be burned.”

Dziwisz never looked at his long-time friend’s notebooks, but he chose not to fulfill the the late Pontiff’s final wish. Why? As he explained, “I did not burn John Paul II’s notes because they are a key to understanding his spirituality, that is, what is innermost in a person: his relationship to God, to other men and to himself.”    

We can debate the merits of Dziwisz’s decision until the saints come marching in, but regardless, the unexpected preservation of the Pope’s private thoughts led to In Gods’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Pope Saint John Paul II’s creation.

Father Jan Machniak, a professor of spiritual theology at Krakow’s Pontifical University of John Paul II, notes in the introduction that the reflections were recorded in two notebooks: in the diaries “Agenda 1962” and “1985.” The first diary “recorded entries according to his own system and put together personal and spiritual experiences from various years,” while the second diary “originally belonged to the Pope’s Secretary, Monsignor Emery Kabongo.” All of the entries were written in Polish, but the author often introduced phrases in Latin and Italian, especially during Vatican retreats.

According to Machniak, “the author of the notes appears to be an extraordinarily regular and well-organized person, focused on spiritual topics. He refrains from describing his emotional states, current affairs and people involved in them. His entire focus is on the extent to which he can reflect Christ in his own life—Christ the Highest Priest.” In his later years, the notes became sparser. While the Pontiff mentioned “the topic of the retreat and the order of the day,” there are “less of his own reflections” because, alas, “he found writing more and more difficult.” 

These diaries provide a wealth of information, knowledge, and understanding about John Paul II. Moreover, they prove that even someone as revered as the Holy Father asked questions, didn’t have all the answers, and had occasional doubts.

Many diary entries explored John Paul II’s personal relationship with God. The Pope wrote, “In Christ the absolute holiness of God is united hypostatically with the holiness of man” in Nov. 1962 at the Felician Sisters’ Convent. He apparently “experienced a particular awareness of God in His personal transcendence in relation to the created world: the awareness of the Creator and Father, who is one God with the Son and the Holy Spirit” during the last day of a September 1971 Bishops’ Conference retreat.

John Paul II wrote that, “God becomes man so that man—humankind—in Him could return to God. The masterpiece of love. He became one of us and assumed human nature after the fall!” during a March 1982 retreat in St. Matilda’s Chapel. As well, he made this remarkable analysis, “[w]hen speaking about God, it is easier to focus on the authenticity of a subjective feeling than on the authenticity of the truth of God. Sometimes an atheist can have a deeper sense of God as Someone unfathomable than a believer” during spiritual exercises in Feb. 1991.

These intimate, personal reflections should serve to intrigue and surprise Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul II was true to his faith and teachings, but he was open to private challenge—and saw our world in ways than he couldn’t, or wasn’t willing, to show in public.

His diaries also mention the Virgin Mary and John Paul II’s apostolic motto, Totus Tuus (“totally thine”). During a day’s meditation at a July 1975 retreat, he wrote that “Mary stands in the middle of the dynamism of creation: full of grace. Together with Her I try to resolve issues.... My ‘ambition’ of sanctity is also connected to Her: Totus Tuus.”

The Pope observed that: “The Mother’s place: the Mother’s space! The whole church, and the whole world, is such a space” (March 1979), “Mary builds her family seeking Christ. In this way She enters more deeply into the mystery of His Father” (March 1981), “Magnificat—a prayer that is completely Hers...does not break Mary’s silence—it is a part of it. This silence consists in a careful listening to the ‘words of the Holy Spirit.’ This was Mary’s prayer” (March 1987).

The diaries weren’t limited to a narrow topical range. John Paul II was a true intellectual, and he delved into many thought-provoking subjects.

His great respect for Jews and Israel was always evident. During spiritual exercises in February 1985, he wrote about the Ark of the Covenant, noting that “Israel broke the covenant more than once, but they always returned to it, remembering the testimony of God’s love: God-Beloved. The old covenant—preparation for the new covenant.” He also wrote about Islam during this retreat in March 1985, pointing out the “dialogue with Islam is difficult. Muslims’ religious zeal. We will need centuries to bring Christians and Muslims together through their faith in one God; but we trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.”

At the March 1981 retreat, he considers this powerful question, “Am I a religious person?” He jots down several interesting points, including “The most important progress: religious progress,” “Reading of Holy Scripture, whose light in inexhaustible,” and “‘The library of the heart’: Holy Scripture should fill the libraries of hearts.” As a reflection, he produces a powerful answer, “Yes: the heart is to be a library of the Word of God, uttered in Scripture. This library has to be constantly open to important questions, needs, situations.”

Finally, it’s worth highlighting that during the February 1983 retreat in St. Matilda’s Chapel led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI upon John Paul II’s death, there was an intriguing discussion about something both men greatly treasured: personal freedom. The Pontiff wrote, “The question of freedom lies in the centre of soteriology—freedom is the divine dimension of man. Freedom in truth. The liberation of man without his divination is an illusion.” More to the point, “The transformation of human freedom in every person also takes place in a similar way: the laboratory of human freedom (soteriological aspect).”

Pope Saint John Paul II was admired by many for his faith, leadership, guidance, genuine embrace of other world religions, and aiding in the fall of Communism. In Gods’s Hands adds another important layer to this Pope and Saint: a humble servant who wanted to better understand the complexities of his world, and our world.