“John Paul II, a sign for us of hope and confidence”

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sent a letter to Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, retired archbishop of Krakow, Poland and secretary for 40 years to Karol Wojtyla – Pope John Paul II – on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Paul on May 18.

He looks at the late Pope’s life, papacy and death, with attention to two words attributed to John Paul II, “saint” and “great,” noting that, “the word ‘saint’ indicates God’s sphere and the word ‘great’ the human dimension.”

Titled “For the Centennial of the Birth of Saint Pope John Paul II on May 18, 2020,” the letter was dated May 4, 2020 from Vatican City and is signed Benedict XVI. It was made public in Poland today at 11 am.

Following is the entire English translation of that letter:

100 years ago, on May 18th, Pope John Paul II was born in the small Polish town of Wadowice.

After having been divided for over 100 years by three neighboring major powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria, Poland regained Her independence at the end of the First World War. It was a historic event that gave birth to great hope; but it also demanded much hardship as the new State, in the process of Her reorganization, continued to feel the pressure of the two Powers of Germany and Russia. In this situation of oppression, but above all in this situation marked by hope, young Karol Wojtyła grew up. He lost his mother and his brother quite early and, in the end, his father as well, from whom he gained deep and warm piety. The young Karol was particularly drawn by literature and theater. After passing his final secondary school exam, he chose to study these subjects.

“In order to avoid the deportation, in the fall of 1940 he went to work in a quarry of the Solvay chemical plant.” (cf. Gift and Mystery). “In the fall of 1942, he made the final decision to enter the Seminary of Kraków, which Kraków’s Archbishop Sapieha had secretly established in his residence. As a factory worker, Karol already started studying theology in old textbooks; and so, on 1 November 1946, he could be ordained a priest.” (cf. Ibid.) Of course, Karol not only studied theology in books but also through his experience of the difficult situation that he and his Country found itself in. This is somewhat a characteristic of his whole life and work. He studied books but the questions that they posed became the reality that he profoundly experienced and lived. As a young Bishop – as an Auxiliary Bishop since 1958 and then Archbishop of Kraków from 1964 – the Second Vatican Council became the school of his entire life and work. The important questions that appeared, especially in connection with the so-called Schema 13 which would subsequently become the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, were questions that were also his own. The answers developed by the Council would pave the way for his mission as Bishop and, later, as Pope.

When Cardinal Wojtyła was elected Successor of St. Peter on 16 October 1978, the Church was in a dramatic situation. The deliberations of the Council had been presented to the public as a dispute over the Faith itself, which seemed to deprive the Council of its infallible and unwavering sureness. A Bavarian parish priest, for example, commented on the situation by saying, “In the end, we fell into the wrong faith.” This feeling that nothing was no longer certain, that everything was questioned, was kindled even more by the method of implementation of liturgical reform. In the end, it almost seemed that the liturgy could be created of itself. Paul VI brought the Council to an end with energy and determination, but after its conclusion, he faced ever more pressing problems that ultimately questioned the existence of the Church Herself. At that time, sociologists compared the Church’s situation to the situation of the Soviet Union under the rule of Gorbachev, during which the powerful structure of the Soviet State collapsed under the process of its reform.

Therefore, in essence, an almost impossible task was awaiting the new Pope. Yet, from the first moment on, John Paul II aroused new enthusiasm for Christ and his Church. His words from the sermon at the inauguration of his pontificate: “Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors for Christ!” This call and tone would characterize his entire pontificate and made him a liberating restorer of the Church. This was conditioned by the fact that the new Pope came from a country where the Council’s reception had been positive: one of a joyful renewal of everything rather than an attitude of doubt and uncertainty in all.

The Pope traveled the world, having made 104 pastoral voyages, proclaiming the Gospel wherever he went as a message of joy, explaining in this way the obligation to defend what is Good and to be for Christ.

In his 14 Encyclicals, he comprehensively presented the faith of the Church and its teaching in a human way. By doing this, he inevitably sparked contradiction in Church of the West, clouded by doubt and uncertainty.

It seems important today to define the true centre, from the perspective of which we can read the message contained in the various texts. We could have noticed it at the hour of his death. Pope John Paul II died in the first moments of the newly established Feast of Divine Mercy. Let me first add a brief personal remark that seems an important aspect of the Pope’s nature and work. From the very beginning, John Paul II was deeply touched by the message of Faustina Kowalska, a nun from Kraków, who emphasized Divine Mercy as an essential center of the Christian faith. She had hoped for the establishment of such a feast day. After consultation, the Pope chose the Second Sunday of Easter. However, before the final decision was made, he asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to express its view on the appropriateness of this date. We responded negatively because such an ancient, traditional and meaningful date like the Sunday “in Albis” concluding the Octave of Easter should not be burdened with modern ideas. It was certainly not easy for the Holy Father to accept our reply. Yet, he did so with great humility and accepted our negative response a second time. Finally, he formulated a proposal that left the Second Sunday of Easter in its historical form but included Divine Mercy in its original message. There have often been similar cases in which I was impressed by the humility of this great Pope, who abandoned ideas he cherished because he could not find the approval of the official organs that must be asked according established norms.

When John Paul II took his last breaths on this world, the prayer of the First Vespers of the Feast of Divine Mercy had just ended. This illuminated the hour of his death: the light of God’s mercy stands as a comforting message over his death. In his last book Memory and Identity, which was published on the eve of his death, the Pope once again summarized the message of Divine Mercy. He pointed out that Sister Faustina died before the horrors of the Second World War but already gave the Lord’s answer to all this unbearable strife. It was as if Christ wanted to say through Faustina: “Evil will not get the final victory. The mystery of Easter affirms that good will ultimately be victorious, that life will triumph over death, and that love will overcome hatred”.

Throughout his life, the Pope sought to subjectively appropriate the objective center of Christian faith, the doctrine of salvation, and to help others to make it theirs. Through the resurrected Christ, God’s mercy is intended for every individual. Although this center of Christian existence is given to us only in faith, it is also philosophically significant, because if God’s mercy were not a fact, then we would have to find our way in a world where the ultimate power of good against evil is not recognizable. It is finally, beyond this objective historical significance, indispensable for everyone to know that in the end God’s mercy is stronger than our weakness. Moreover, at this point, the inner unity of the message of John Paul II and the basic intentions of Pope Francis can also be found: John Paul II is not the moral rigorist as some have partially portrayed him. With the centrality of divine mercy, he gives us the opportunity to accept moral requirement for man, even if we can never fully meet it. Besides, our moral endeavors are made in the light of divine mercy, which proves to be a force that heals for our weakness.

While Pope John Paul II was dying, St. Peter’s Square was filled with people, especially many young people, who wanted to meet their Pope one last time. I cannot forget the moment when Archbishop Sandri announced the message of the Pope’s departure. Above all, the moment when the great bell of St. Peter’s took up this message remains unforgettable. On the day of his funeral, there were many posters with the words “Santo subito!” It was a cry that rose from the encounter with John Paul II from all sides. Not from the square but also in different intellectual circles the idea of giving John Paul II the title “the Great” was discussed.

The word “saint” indicates God’s sphere and the word “great” the human dimension. According to the Church’s standards, sanctity can be recognized by two criteria: heroic virtues and a miracle. These two standards are closely related. Since the word “heroic virtue” does not mean a kind of Olympic achievement but rather that something becomes visible in and through a person that is not his own but God’s work which becomes recognizable in and through him. This is not a kind of moral competition, but the result of renouncing one’s own greatness. The point is that a person lets God work on him, and so God’s work and power become visible through him.

The same applies to the criterion of the miracle: here too, what counts is not that something sensational happening but the visible revelation of God’s healing goodness, which transcends all merely human possibilities. A saint is the man who is open to God and permeated by God. A holy man is the one who leads away from himself and lets us see and recognize God. Checking this juridically, as far as possible, is the purpose of the two processes for beatification and canonization. In the case of John Paul II, both were carried out strictly according to the applicable rules. So, now he stands before us as the Father, who makes God’s mercy and kindness visible to us.

It is more difficult to correctly define the term “great.” In the course of the almost 2,000-year long history of the papacy, the title “the Great” has been maintained only for two popes: Leo I (440 – 461) and Gregory I (590 – 604). In the case of both, the word “great” has a political connotation, but precisely because something of the mystery of God himself becomes visible through their political success. Through dialog, Leo the Great was able to convince Attila, the Prince of Huns, to spare Rome – the city of the Apostolic Princes Peter and Paul. Without weapons, without military or political power, through the power of his conviction for his faith, he was able to convince the feared tyrant to spare Rome. In the struggle between the spirit and power, the spirit proved stronger.

Gregory I’s success was not as spectacular, but he was repeatedly able to protect Rome against the Lombard – here too, by opposing the spirit against power and winning the victory of the spirit.

If we compare both stories with that of John Paul II, the similarity is unmistakable. John Paul II also had no military or political power. During the discussion about the future shape of Europe and Germany in February 1945, it was said that the Pope’s reaction should also be taken into account. Stalin then asked: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Well, he had no available division. However, the power of faith turned out to be a force that finally unhinged the Soviet power system in 1989 and made a new beginning possible. Undisputedly, the Pope’s faith was an essential element in the collapse of the powers. And so, the greatness that appeared in Leo I and Gregory I is certainly also visible here.

Let us leave open the question of whether the epithet “the great” will prevail or not. It is true that God’s power and goodness have become visible to all of us in John Paul II. In a time when the Church is again suffering from the oppression of evil, he is for us a sign of hope and confidence.

Dear Saint John Paul II, Pray for us!

Benedict XVI




Today’s column is about memories.

I have posted this before, on another anniversary of St. John Paul’s death, but felt compelled to do so again today as I sat in silence for a while to ponder the events of 15 years ago – the day the man people call John Paul the Great died – and all the years before that of his magnificent papacy and the honor I had to work at the Vatican during those years.

Yesterday I looked back at the vigil of John Paul’s death. Today I remember the day of his death – 9:37 pm on Saturday, April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday – through some of the emails I received from people in Rome and in the U.S. I am also look forward, looking to the future by publishing some of the memories I have from the years I worked for the Vatican during his papacy.

I am writing a book about John Paul II called “I Made Cookies For a Saint” in which I focus on his humor and humanity. It will have my memories, my stories, but also those of friends I’ve contacted – cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people – who had such up-close-and-personal-moments. For many reasons, the book has gotten a bit side-tracked but I hope I am now back on track.

And that is the reason I asked yesterday – and ask again today: Did you – or a family member or someone very close to you – ever have the chance, at some point in John Paul’s 26-year plus papacy to have an encounter with him, to share a few minutes, to be in his presence for one shining moment?

I don’t mean a general audience. I mean up close and personal! I would like stories that highlight Pope John Paul’s humor and humanity. We know his writings, his travels, his legacy. I want personal, touching stories, stories that will make readers smile, laugh out loud or simply sigh at a beautiful story of the Holy Father’s humanity.  You might even know someone with a great story!

If you believe you have such a story, write me at: joanknows@gmail.com


Today – specifically this evening at 9:37 – marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Saint John Paul II. Those years at times seem very short and, at other times, very long. After all, we are in the second papacy since John Paul’s death, following eight years of Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, elected in 2013.

When I woke this morning, I reflected back on that cool April day in 2005, remembering with a vividness beyond telling how I spent the last days, the last hours of the Pope’s life. In fact, it’s as if it had happened just hours ago. After all, there are days, moments, perhaps even seconds, in one’s life that are so unique, so strongly seared into our hearts, minds and souls, that they truly are unforgettable.

I mentioned some of this in a column I wrote here yesterday, recalling the vigil, then the death of John Paul and featuring two of the many emails I wrote at the time – one to a niece, the other to a priest friend, that expressed my emotions and what I was witnessing. I went back to the files I have from April 2005, most notably email exchanges with family and friends, and today offer a very, very small number of the tsunami of emails I received:

From my niece Susan:
Hi again, I was just thinking…how lucky Grandpa is! He gets to meet the Pope now! And now when it is our time to go home, we will be greeted by both great men… Love and hugs…Susan

From my friend Laurie in Rome:

Dear, dear Joan,
I know how close he is to your heart! I can only imagine the loss. But, it seems to me that it is a time to rejoice! Few have lived lives better than this man. He has poured himself out for the good of others, for the good of the Church, and he is about to win the crown of victory! What a wonderful gift the Lord has given us in JPII! I spent the day in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. Peter’s, which was packed full from noon on. It was very prayerful and calm and not at all sad. Santo Spirito (church) was also packed (went for Divine Mercy.)

I stayed in the Square until after the Rosary, but had to come home because I wasn’t dressed for the cold. I noticed that as many people were entering the Square as were leaving it! Most of those arriving at that hour were young people. I saw groups of young people with flags, boxes of votive candles and other supplies to spend the night with their Holy Father. You can be assured that you are in my prayers! I’ve actually been carrying my cell phone. … I would be happy to help in any way … I could pick up lunch! But most of all, I will pray. Hang in there! The Holy Father needs you!

From a friend in the U.S.:
A bright light went out in the world tonight but that bright light’s glow will shine in our hearts forever.

From Msgr D:
Dear Joan,
Please accept my sympathy on the loss of your Bishop, the Bishop of Rome, and our Holy Father, a great and holy man. While we mourn his loss to us, we rejoice that he now with the Saints in the abode of the Holy Trinity. Let us pray for him and our Church. We pray that, like the Apostles, he guides us still.

From Fred and Debbie,
We love you and wish we were there to give you a big hug. We too are shedding tears for this Holy man who now is an intercessor for us in heaven.
I am assured God sits on your shoulder today for all your efforts for His Church. God bless you and our Church and the successor of Giovanni Paolo II!
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,

From Ann:
Dear Joanie:
….and so he went to his God, uttering Amen. It is truly the end of an era and how I will miss him. His utter kindness and gentle manner, coupled with his strength both physical, in his early Papacy, and later in his illnesses and suffering…what an example of dying with dignity. I particularly loved his love of children, the sick, his quick humor, his loyalty to the country of his birth and, of course, his deep and abiding Faith.

I think of you, who knew him well and I offer my deepest sympathy. I know you feel as I do that he is now where we are all striving to end but on a day-to-day basis, you will, I am sure, miss him deeply.

I’ve been crying on and off all day, but the rational “me” knows he is now at peace. There is no doubt in my mind that that soul is in heaven, no doubt at all. the angels took him, the Blessed Mother met him and her Son received him……Amen.


In a conversation with the Polish news agency KAI, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, former secretary to Pope John Paul, asked all people of good will to join in prayer on Thursday, April 2, at 9.37 pm, to ask God, through the intercession of John Paul II, to end the coronavirus pandemic. “I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to unite with John Paul II again on the fifteenth anniversary of his departure for the Father’s house. I ask you all to be present in this spiritual community on April 2 at 9:37 pm. May our prayer of entrustment go up to Heaven.”

“We need each other so that all together we can plead merciful God, through the intercession of Saint John Paul II, for the cessation of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The cardinal proposed reciting at 9:37 pm the act of entrustment to Divine Mercy that he himself recently pronounced in the sanctuary of Łagiewniki in the chapel of Saint Faustyna Kowalska:

“Almighty God, faced with the pandemic that hit humanity, we zealously renew the act of entrusting St. John Paul II to your Divine Mercy. To you, Merciful Father, we humbly entrust the fate of the world and of every person.

“Stop this coronavirus pandemic. Bless all those who work intensely to ensure that the sick are treated and protect the healthy from infection. Give health to all those affected, instill patience for those in quarantine and welcome the deceased to your heavenly home. Strengthen the sense of responsibility of all healthy people, so that they watch over themselves and others, for the good of the needy. Strengthen our faith, the relationship with Christ, your Son, who has become man for us and is with us every day. Spread your Spirit on the nations and on the whole world, so that those who fight against disease may be united in praising You, Creator of the universe, fighting the virus of sin that destroys human hearts with Christian fortitude.

“Eternal Father, for the painful passion and resurrection of Your Son, have mercy on us and the whole world. Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us. Saint John Paul II, Saint Faustina and all the Saints, pray for us. Amen.” (Source ACI Stampa)



I barely know where to begin because my first full day in Kraków has been extraordinary, but I’ve decided to focus on one special moment, one special visit.

I had an appointment this morning with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow, whom I have known for many years, as I wrote yesterday. We first met in the early years of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, stayed in touch and saw each other throughout those long years and remained stayed in touch even after John Paul the Great died in 2005.

My first trip to Kraków to see the archbishop who succeeded his “boss” as archbishop of Krakow was to report on Pope Benedict’s visit in 2006 to honor his predecessor. Now, as I walk the streets of this beautiful and historic city, I find it hard to believe that 10 years have passed.

The cardinal and I met at 10:30. He has had a busy week so far because Msgr. Guido Marini, master of papal liturgical ceremonies is also in Karkow to plan for Pope Francis’ liturgies when he comes in late July for World Youth Day.

Fr. Tomasz, the cardinal’s secretary, ushered me into an office I had visited only once before, 10 years ago, but felt it was so familiar, that I knew it well.

I had seen the cardinal in Rome on June 5 and we mentioned that visit for the canonization of a new Polish Saint Stanislaus, this time the founder of the Marian Fathers. We naturally also talked about World Youth Day and the cardinal reported how hard everyone has been working, how excited everyone is and how “absolutely wonderful” Krakow’s World Youth Day will be.


He told me that 40,000 Americans are coming and said he is thrilled! He added that 250,000 Italian youth are coming! This all makes me wonder: wow, how many Polish Youth will there be?!

I gave Cardinal Dziwisz a copy of my book, “A Holy Year in Rome,” and he also knows about my book on John Paul. We’ve agreed to meet again in September when he will have more time to sit down and tell me the stories I want to hear, the stories I want to tell about John Paul’s humor and humanity. The cardinal is immensely pleased I have chosen to focus on these aspects of the man for whom he was almost like a son for 40 years!


He was also immensely pleased that I brought my homemade chocolate chip cookies (as was Fr. Tomasz)! We both remember how the Pope enjoyed them, as did the papal household, the Polish nuns and others, because the cardinal, at the time Msgr. Stanislaw, either called me or wrote me a note each time I brought cookies to the Holy Father. So many special, really special, memories!

Cardinal Dziwisz really warmed the cockles of my heart when he thanked me for the work I did all the years at the Vatican and for the work I now do, my “ministry” for EWTN, for the Church.


Since he knew I intend to go to the Shrine of Divine Mercy the John Paul II shrine tomorrow, he asked me to report back to him with my impressions on the Saint John Paul Shrine!

After this memorable visit and renewal of a long and wonderful friendship, Fr. Tomasz took some photos (many more than you see here!) and the cardinal and I said our goodbyes, promising to meet in September.

I bid him farewell with my Mother’s words – God sit on your shoulder!

Fr. Tomasz asked if I had ever seen the room whose window the Pope always appeared at when he came to Poland and stayed at the archbishop’s residence. The crowd of faithful would never let him get to bed without first greeting them at this window. And the same happened for Benedict XVI ten years ago – a huge, adoring crowd and the same window.


I had seen the window from outside but never the famous room:


Fr. Tomasz then brought me to a place that gave me goose bumps – the chapel where John Paul, Karol Wojtyla, was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Sapieha on November 1, 1946.





I was able to stay some time here in prayer, and the memories of this great and long pontificate all came flooding back. As you can see in the photos, there is the picture of John Paul used for his beatification and canonization and there are also some relics here.

A special beginning to a special day.