Cardinal Re remembers his years working for the Polish pope, and what he learned from watching him.
During a book presentation in Rome, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, emphasized that St. John Paul II was a man of prayer, of certainties, self-assured because of his relationship with God, and gifted with a great ability to communicate with people.
Cardinal Re was a direct witness of the 26 and a half years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, and he revealed Wojtyla’s secret for making difficult decisions: “He prayed for a long time.”
Cardinal Re recounted some episodes of the saint’s spiritual life, and said that the Polish pope considered the “needs of the human spirit” to be no less important than those of the body.
When at various moments of the day, such as during meals, the pope discussed important projects, problems, etc, and wasn’t able to reach an adequate decision, then he would always conclude: “We need to pray even more so that the Lord will illuminate us regarding this problem, so that the hand of God will come to our aid.”
Cardinal Re, who was the personal secretary of the Substitute for General Affairs of the Secretary of State from 1971 to 1977, talked about an urgent case that was being discussed in depth during meetings of the oldest dicastery of the Roman Curia.
The pope had already listened to various opinions, and it seemed that a good response to the problem was in sight. Then, the advisors to the Successor of Peter asked him if they could publish his decision. “No, no,” said Wojtyla, “I still need to pray a bit more about this matter.”
Cardinal Re was named Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops in 1987, and remembered another anecdote that illustrated John Paul II’s spiritual criteria when it came to making a definitive decision regarding a matter that would affect the lives of thousands of the faithful, such as the naming of a bishop.
“I remember a plenary meeting of the congregation, in which the bishops’ votes were divided evenly: 50% and 50%. Some were in favor of the first candidate, and others inclined more towards the second. Both candidates were excellent based on adherence to tradition, knowledge of the place, and experience.”
“We told him everything he needed to know, and Pope John Paul II took the papers in his hands. It was Saturday night, and he told me, ‘Monday morning I will celebrate Mass for these intentions, and then I will reach a decision.’ I don’t know why he didn’t tell me he would do it on Sunday, a day on which he would also celebrate Mass, but I think it was probably because he already had a long list of intentions,” Cardinal Re explained.
The weekend passed, he recounted, and “Monday, in the afternoon, Cardinal Dziwisz (the pope’s secretary) gave me the papers from the pope with the name of the bishop written down, as he had promised.”
Cardinal Re also remembered the pope’s pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Mentorella, one of the oldest shrines in Italy and Europe, on October 29, 1978. There, the pope told the world that “the pope’s primary task is to pray.”
Since the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council, the future John Paul had had the opportunity to stay in Rome on several occasions, whether for conciliar work or for other tasks entrusted to him by Pope Paul VI. At that time, he loved to visit the Mother of Grace, 46 miles from the Vatican, a shrine “hidden among mountains that attracted me in a special way,” he said.
Thus, during his days in Rome, while praying before the Virgin, a “hunger for prayer” grew within Wojtyla in order to do the will of God, especially during that decisive moment for the Church in the world.
Cardinal Re quoted the words of the pope during that pilgrimage. “Prayer, which expresses in various ways man’s relationship with the living God, is also the first task and almost the first announcement of the pope, just as it is the first condition of his service in the Church and in the world.”
Cardinal Re acknowledged the coherence between the pope’s words and deeds. “The pope prayed to discover his deepest thoughts, and was convinced that the first thing he had to do was to ask God for help so he could then make a decision, doing God’s will in solving a problem. ”
“Lastly, John Paul II was a mystic, and that could be deduced when we his collaborators saw him when he went hiking outdoors, in a beautiful country location, when we had to leave him alone so he could pray and contemplate the landscape. That’s when we could see that he was a mystic.”
Cardinal Re commented on the book published by the Vatican’s publishing house, Christ, the Church and the World (Cristo, la Chiesa e il mondo, published in Italian), which contains previously unpublished catecheses by the then-Archbishop of Krakow (1965), Wojtyla “emphasizes the fact that without Christ we cannot understand the world, nor can we embrace the mystery of man.”
He also shared the fact that “every catechesis is preceded by a phrase in Latin, a prayer. A prayer that is not related to the text that it introduces.” In this way, “he wanted each page to be an act of prayer so that, before beginning the reading, a thought would be directed to God.”