Remembering Pope John Paul II
Leonid D. Rudnytzky
In my rather long life, I have had the good fortune to meet many extraordinary people — luminaries of scholarship, writers and poets, artists, diplomats, presidents, as well as spiritual leaders of various nations and denominations.
One of them is now a saint. That person is Karol Wojtyla, known to the world today as Saint Pope John Paul II.
I had the privilege of interacting with His Holiness on three continents — Australia, North America, and Europe — each time learning more and more about the man who was to become the Vicar of Christ. While these meetings imbued me with greater faith in God and made me – I think – a better person, they were not without humor.
In 1978, I was a professor of German and Slavic Languages and Literatures at La Salle College (later University) in Philadelphia. I was sitting in the faculty cafeteria with some colleagues when La Salle’s News Bureau Chief at that time, Bobby Lyons (1939-2013), burst into the room to announce that a new Pontiff had been elected, but nobody knew anything about him. This was before the Internet; information was less readily available than now.
My reaction to the news that it was Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was an elated “I know him!” and then things really began to happen.
My first mistake was revealing my acquaintance with the new Pope; and my second, talking indiscriminately with all the reporters sent my way. I became instantly an object of interest, almost a celebrity. My television interview was tastefully done, and Philadelphia community response to it was most favorable: a number of my colleagues congratulated me, and even La Salle’s President, Brother Patrick Ellis, F.S.C. (1928 -2013), expressed a few kind words. However, one look at the front page headlines of the Philadelphia Journal of October 17, 1978, was enough to make me want to deny the whole thing: the headline was “POLISH POPE: PHILLY’S PAL” and the pal, as I found out on page five, was I. Yes, the article on page five left no doubt about it: “La Salle prof is Papal pal.” In addition, the first paragraph made sure that the headlines were not just simply sensationalism, I quote: “La Salle Professor Dr. Leo D. Rudnytzky was stunned yesterday when he heard the news. A friend of his— Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland had incredibly just been named Pope!” I was stunned all right, but more by the sensational journalism than by the fact that I really did know His Holiness, Pope John Paul II. “Papal pal” was not exactly that sort of label I would have chosen, especially when it did not apply, but some people will do anything for the sake of alliteration.
I first met His Holiness Pope John Paul II (then Karol Cardinal Wojtyla) at the Fortieth Eucharistic Congress held in Melbourne, Australia in February 1973, but I did not become acquainted with him until we met in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 27, 1976. At that time, I was a guest professor for Ukrainian Literature at Harvard University and Cardinal Wojtyla had been invited by the administration to deliver a lecture for faculty and students. Recognizing the name from the Eucharistic Congress, I naturally decided to attend his lecture on Marxism, which was entitled “Participation or Alienation?” I remember sitting in front row and waiting for the speaker, with my paper and pencil ready to take notes. However, once the lecture began, I became so immersed in the discourse that I promptly forgot to write things down, and as a result, almost everything I retell here is from my notoriously unreliable memory. The Cardinal read in grammatically impeccable English a fascinating paper on the grave moral issues of the 20th century. In it he took to task the Marxist notion that “men are reducible to creatures of social, political, and economic structures,” explained that even some Marxists themselves “have pointed out that revolutionary transformation of society can bring about new forms of alienation,” and went on to consider these forms in greater detail. The more I listened the more I became impressed with his mastery of the Marxist dialectic and his knowledge of contemporary philosophical trends. Resonances of Max Scheler’s philosophy reverberated in his words as well as the thinking of the existentialists. But all this, I felt, was modified by the “Personalism” of a Jacques Maritain, the Christian Existentialism of a Gabriel Marcel and integrated through the Catholic Weltanschauung of the speaker himself. At all times too, there was a scholarly clarity and wholesome lucidity in his delivery which made his presentation, despite the inherent complexities of the topic, easy to follow.
Following the lecture, there was a wine and cheese reception during which some members of the audience approached the Cardinal and chatted with him briefly. I was one of those, except that my conversation with him was of a greater duration than that of other people, because I spoke to him in Polish. The Cardinal, I could sense, was delighted to hear somebody speak his native tongue (even if it was spoken rather poorly). In fact, he was so pleased, that he complimented me on my Polish, supplying a word here and there whenever I got stuck. I mentioned to him that the conclusion of his paper struck me as somewhat Thomistic, perhaps more than the arguments made in its body warranted, and he smiled gently and said: “You’re probably right.” By that time I began to feel at ease in his presence and before I knew it, we were discussing over white wine, among other things, the state of Catholicism in the world, the persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Soviet Union and the spiritual leadership of its Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, my work as a professor, and the concept of a Catholic University. I found him to be amazingly well informed on all kinds of current issues as well as on various areas of scholarship. He expressed genuine interest in my work in German-Ukrainian literary relations and asked me if I had done any work on Polish-Ukrainian literary ties. Upon hearing that I was planning to deliver a lecture at the Catholic University of Lublin the next year (a plan which never materialized), he invited me to visit him in Cracow, and to impress upon me the fact that he meant it, he extended the invitation again, when we saw each other the next day, at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.
Two years later, he became Pope John Paul II, and I could proudly proclaim urbi et orbi, I know him! This chance (or providential) meeting in Cambridge as well as my work for the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, led to several encounters with His Holiness. I knew the Pope had a phenomenal memory, but I was most surprised and delighted when, during my first audience in the Vatican, he pointed his finger at me and said, “I know this gentleman—Harvard University, isn’t it?” This, after his seeing millions of people, was truly extraordinary. “No, Your Holiness, La Salle,” I responded, and explained: “I did have the honor of meeting Your Holiness at Harvard in 1976, where we were sort of missionaries,” which brought a smile to his face. Honores mutant mores, an old Latin proverb tells us, but this was definitely not the case with Karol Wojtyla. There was no trace of pride in him, only loving, human kindness expressed most poignantly in his message to all of us: “Do not be afraid.” If anything, he was more humble after his election to the See of Peter. His human warmth was constantly with him. When, at one general audience in St. Peter’s Square, my at-that-time teenage daughters screamed at him in Ukrainian, “Our father says hello.” He smiled, waved back, and replied: “Say hello to him from me.”
The Holy Father also was not inured to criticism. When, at one time, I thanked him for interceding on behalf of the persecuted Ukrainian Catholics in the Soviet Union, he asked with some concern, but also with a touch of satisfaction, “But did you read how the French newspapers criticized me?”
My brief encounters with the Holy Father left me with a great sense of satisfaction. At that time of course, I did not suspect that I had been speaking with a future Saint; but, as I recall, I savored the pleasant, rewarding experience of having talked with an erudite man, whose thoughts were both intellectually stimulating and spiritually uplifting. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the presence of a man of God, who had successfully integrated faith with reason, experience with aspiration, and who stood on firm philosophical ground while at the same time conscious of his limitations as a human being.
As a man, he was, like all of us, fallible. As a Pontiff, he was awe-inspiring. His exceptional quality of character enabled him to stand firm against certain currents of our times, and yet divinely surf the tides of our common historical experience. Spanning two centuries, with a plethora of humankind’s unprecedented inventions, innovations, and confounding technological advancements, including the advent of the much-vaunted information revolution—he was uniquely in tune with both the spiritual needs and the worldly necessities of our age. He was, without doubt, the right man, at the right time. In the end, I came to think of him as a sort of “papal pal,” with an altogether different meaning than those sensational headlines intended.
“God needs good people in heaven,” says an old Ukrainian proverb. I find solace and comfort in these simple words. Having labored and suffered and having accomplished so much for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, John Paul II has gone to his Maker, to ensured and blessed eternal peace.
Rudnytzky, Leo D. “Past Encounters with a Future Pope.” La Salle Magazine 23.1 (Winter 1978-1979), 17-18.
Rudnytzky, Leo. D. “Farewell to a Pontiff.” La Salle Magazine 49.1 (Spring 2005), 20-21.