By: Christopher West
In early March of 2008, I traveled to Poland on a three-fold mission: (1) to offer a series of lectures for the John Paul II Center in Krakow; (2) to carry out some further research on the late Pope’s teaching; and (3) to make a pilgrimage to those places of importance to the life and work of Karol Wojtyla. What an incredible journey it was. As soon as the wheels touched down at the airport in Krakow, I was filled with emotion. I could almost feel the suffering of this land. So much blood spilled here, the lives of millions slaughtered on Polish soil. Poland has been called the Christ of nations, and I had a keen sense that I was one of the direct beneficiaries of all that this land has suffered.
Privileged Experiences in Poland
John Paul II’s vision of the human person — expressed so beautifully in his masterwork, the “theology of the body” (TOB) — simply cannot be understood apart from the Polish context in which Karol Wojtyla was formed. As a young man, death and degradation surrounded him. It could rain human ashes in Krakow, an hour and a half drive from the crematoriums in Auschwitz. Wojtyla would have been sent there too, or shot on the spot, like so many of his fellow Poles, had his clandestine seminary studies been discovered. While others concluded that life was absurd, young Wojtyla felt compelled to press-in to the enigma of human existence and seek answers. The answers he found have changed my life, and I felt the need somehow to “repay the debt” to the Polish people for what they had given me in John Paul II. That, in fact, was the chief reason I accepted the invitation to lecture there.
I was invited to present a three night series on John Paul II’s TOB at the famous “Ark Church” in a town outside Krakow called Nowa Huta. The Communists insisted that this would be “a town without God.” Archbishop Wojtyla insisted that the people needed a church. The Ark Church now stands as a symbol of Wojtyla’s triumph over atheism. Lecturing there was a tremendous honor. The second aspect of my mission was to carry out further research on the Popes’ TOB. Michael Waldstein, a scholar from Austria with whom I had worked on a new English translation of the TOB, invited me to attend a private meeting he had scheduled with Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II’s personal secretary of forty years and, now, Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. Waldstein and I were able to ask the Cardinal questions about John Paul II’s teaching to which only he would have the answers.
Uncovering the Mysteries of the Theology of the Body
One of the mysteries he was able to solve for us was why the Pope had originally prepared 135 addresses for his Wednesday general audiences on the TOB, but only delivered 129. Dziwisz told us that the undelivered material, mostly on the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, was “too delicate” for a general audience. The Pope was concerned that these particular reflections were not appropriate for the children who would be present in St. Peter’s square. I have been studying these undelivered talks since Waldstein first translated them into English two years ago. They are so rich, so beautiful, so glorious, that I decided to postpone the book project I had been working on to write a book devoted solely to unfolding these “hidden” talks of John Paul II (it was published by Ascension Press later that very year). And it is certainly true to say that these undelivered talks are intended for a mature audience.
And the third aspect was pilgrimage. Touring Auschwitz was an experience I will never forget. The horror is simply incomprehensible. No words. I was able to visit many of the sites of Wojtyla’s life, including a private tour of the small apartment where the Pope lived for the first eighteen years of his life. The Polish nun now in charge of the home allowed me to have some time alone to pray in the room where John Paul was born. This is where it all started. This is the “cradle” of the TOB, I thought. This is where Karol Wojtyla first experienced the meaning of marriage and family life. Little did his parents know what a difference their marriage was going to have on the world. That’s what marriage does — it changes the world.
For more information on John Paul II’s landmark teaching, The Theology of the Body, check out Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.