Monday, August 14, 2017

St. John Paul II (and Poland): Stories of Karol

by Gian Franco Svidercoschi, translated by Peter Heinegg

This book is one of the possibilities mentioned at Mater Amabilis™in Level 4 for Catholic saints and heroes. I selected St. John Paul II as one of our saints because First Son has long had an interest in him and because my grandmother's parents immigrated from Poland.

All the place and person names have been "translated", though sometimes confusingly, into English. I felt like sometimes it was difficult to tell where or who the people were, if you knew anything about Poland. I don't really, but I was trying to look some of the up online to learn more about them and had trouble finding them with the spelling used in the book.

I loved the early chapters in this book, the ones focused on St. John Paul II's youth and as the persecution and difficult times under Nazi control began. Though the priesthood beckoned Karol (St. John Paul II's given name) as he grew in his faith, it was the death of his father that released him from other cares enough to realize the call was real and should no longer be postponed.
But the death of his father had of necessity brought everything to the surface. It had instigated a process of detaching him from his earlier plans and making him more clearly see the path upon which he must enter.
Throughout the book, the author draws connections between Karol's experiences and his future as bishop, cardinal, and pope. During the war, one in which he refused to take up arms, he recognized the power of words as weapons. Once, while performing an epic Polish poem clandestinely, in a sealed apartment before a small carefully-selected audience, Karol and his companions heard a blaring announcement from outside that the Germans were entering Moscow (pure propaganda). Karol and the other actors continued unabated in their roles.
At that point, both actors and spectators realized what had happened--not just symbolically, not just in the days of Mickiewicz [the poet]. Their Poland, too, the Poland occupied by the Nazis, had not surrendered to the new oppressor. It had resisted, it had reacted with courage to defend its memory, its culture, and hence its own national identity.
Karol did not fight with guns, but through his performances. Such performances as well as his studies for the priesthood, fostered hope and courage like that sometimes felts on a battlefield as the enemy retreats.
The same thing happened that evening on the left bank of the Vistula River in a little clandestine theater, where one could breathe in a little freedom and take courage again to resist the oppressor. It took tremendous energy to go on doing it. All around lay frightful desolation, and people continued to die or disappear in silence, never to be heard from again. 
Part of Karol's education under the Nazis was the very act of maintaining his faith. Emerging from the war with his faith intact, or even strengthened, meant a faith built upon a solid foundation, one prepared to endure sustained attack in the years to come under Soviet oppression.
At that crucial point in history, with all that was going on in the world, one might well ask oneself--as Elie Weisel did after going through the dreadful experience of the Nazi death camps: Why is God so silent? Why doesn't he intervene? Why does he permit all this horror? In those years, just choosing God, or merely believing that God existed, became a true act of courage and heroism.
The author is a Polish patriot, eagerly describing and defending his country. He also devotes considerable time in chapters about the end of the Second World War, in denouncing the Allies who allowed the Soviet Union to dominate Poland.
Thus Poland, which had been the first victim of the war, which paid the highest price in numbers of deaths and destruction, which had fought alongside the Allies, and had given enormous support to the struggle for freedom was incredibly discriminated against, penalized, and without ever being consulted, forcibly thrust into the sphere of Soviet influence.
I don't know enough about Polish history and the negotiations at the end of the war to say whether his assertions are false; they very well may be true. But they seemed out of place in a book devoted to St. John Paul II's life. It would have been sufficient, I think, to show how the events of the war impacted his life.

He also brazenly denounced the atomic bombings (not sure I disagree there) and the Russian Orthodox Church for remaining silent during persecutions of the Greek Catholic Church and the Latin rite Church where the Soviets were in control (don't know enough to say myself). In both cases, these digressions detracted from the focus.

Once Father Karol was ordained and in a parish, the book began explicitly to show how his work with young adults, couples preparing for marriage, and families, developed his theology and focus as a bishop and beyond.
It was those young people, those couples with their questions, with their doubts, and above all, with their experiences, who pointed the way for him to enter into an understanding of human reality. Hence, they were his first educators. They inspired not just his studies and the books that he would write, but his own pastoral and missionary disposition. Finally, they taught him the type of resistance to use against a dictatorship that claimed to have absolute dominion over persons and their consciences in order to reduce all of society to submission--and in this way to subject even the Church.
The discussion on Karol's studies to become a university lecturer would probably confuse First Son:
He developed such a passion for the subject that he managed not only to work out his own mature philosophical identity, but also to find a point of encounter and a synthesis between two currents of thought: the philosophy of being, that is, Thomism, which he had studied in the Angelicum at Rome, and the philosophy of consciousness, that is, phenomenology, which he had learned more recently through Edmund Husserl and, of course, Scheler.
It's only a few pages, though, and with a bit of warning shouldn't trip up a student too much.

The last chapter includes a few references to St. John Paul II's development of his understanding of relations between men and women within marriage. It's not extensive but might be confusing or upsetting to a student who doesn't know what a physical relationship between husband and wife entails. It would be easy enough for a parent to pre-read and potentially skip the last chapter or speak briefly with a student ahead of time.

The book ends with Pope John Paul II's election.

First Son could read this book next year in Level 4, but I hesitate to give him this book as his saint biography because of the heavy-handedness in the treatment of Poland. Also the later chapters focused mostly on world events. They certainly impacted Father Karol, but the author didn't always link them directly so it sometimes felt like a diatribe. I will only assign this book if I don't find something better.

Even if he doesn't read the whole book, he'll read chapters 3 and 4 in his history course.

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