Pope John Paul II had 'intense' friendship with married woman

Pope John Paul II described Ms Tymieniecka as a "gift from God". She was a Polish-born American philosopher.
Pope John Paul II described Ms Tymieniecka as a "gift from God". She was a Polish-born American philosopher.

LONDON • Hundreds of letters and photographs that tell the story of Pope John Paul II's close relationship with a married woman, which lasted more than 30 years, have been shown to the BBC.

The letters to Polish-born American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka had been kept away from public view in the National Library of Poland for years.

The documents reveal a rarely seen side of the pontiff, who died in 2005. There is no suggestion that the Pope broke his vow of celibacy.

The friendship began in 1973 when Ms Tymieniecka contacted the future pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, then Archbishop of Krakow, about a book on philosophy that he had written. The then 50-year-old travelled from the United States to Poland to discuss the work.

Soon afterwards, the pair began to correspond. At first the cardinal's letters were formal, but as their friendship grew, the correspondence became more intimate.

The pair decided to work on an expanded version of the cardinal's book, The Acting Person. They met many times - sometimes with his secretary present, sometimes alone - and corresponded frequently.

In 1974, he wrote that he was re-reading four of Ms Tymieniecka's letters written in one month because they were "so meaningful and deeply personal".

Photos that have never been seen before by the public reveal the cardinal at his most relaxed. He invited Ms Tymieniecka to join him on country walks and skiing holidays - she even joined him on a group camping trip. The pictures also show her visiting him at the Vatican.

"Here is one of the handful of transcendentally great figures in public life in the 20th century, the head of the Catholic Church, in an intense relationship with an attractive woman," said Cambridge University professor of the history of Christianity Eamon Duffy.

In 1976, Cardinal Wojtyla attended a Catholic conference in the US. Ms Tymieniecka invited him to stay with her family at their country home in New England. She appeared to have revealed intense feelings for him because his letters immediately afterwards suggest a man struggling to make sense of their friendship in Christian terms.

In one, dated September 1976, he writes: "My dear Teresa, I have received all three letters. You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words." He describes her as a "gift from God".

The BBC has not seen any of Ms Tymieniecka's letters. It is believed copies of them were included in the archive that was sold to the Polish National Library by Ms Tymieniecka in 2008, six years before she died. But they were not with the Pope's letters when the BBC was shown them. The National Library of Poland has not confirmed that it has Ms Tymieniecka's letters.

Ms Marsha Malinowski, a rare- manuscripts dealer who negotiated the sale of the letters, said she believes Ms Tymieniecka fell in love with Cardinal Wojtyla in the early days of their relationship. "I think that it's completely reflected in the correspondence," she told the BBC.

The letters reveal that Cardinal Wojtyla gave Ms Tymieniecka one of his most treasured possessions - a scapular, a small devotional necklace worn around the shoulders.

Mr Edward Stourton, the senior BBC journalist who made the documentary, said: "I would say they were more than friends but less than lovers."

Poland's National Library, however rejected the BBC's interpretation, saying that John Paul II had many friends and that such relationships were not confidential or "exceptional".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Pope John Paul II had 'intense' friendship with married woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe