Papal watchers have known for years that Pope John Paul II had close friendships with several women, and until now, there’s never been any suggestion of something untoward about it. Nor is there now.
In fact, the bond between the Polish pope and a married Polish-American woman, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, has been thoroughly documented, including in the 1996 biography, “His Holiness” by Marco Politi and Carl Bernstein, as well as the 1999 biography, “Witness to Hope” by George Weigel.
But is it possible that there was a romantic dimension to the feelings revealed in the letters, perhaps even on the pope’s side? Maybe, and if so, there would be nothing shocking or scandalous about it. The vow of celibacy taken by Catholic priests governs how they act, not how they feel.
If the letters don’t really add much to our understanding of John Paul II, they may nevertheless have something to teach us about how we see popes. In effect, the only real surprise here is that people are surprised.
Not so long ago, the tendency was to see popes as ethereal and distant, almost lifted out of the human condition. In the era of Pope Pius XII in the 1950s, legend has it that when he called subordinates on the phone, they would fall to their knees in reverence until the call was over.
That story is actually apocryphal, but it captures something very real about how people regarded what Catholic tradition still regards as the Supreme Pontiff and the Vicar of Christ on earth.
Pope Francis has done much to change that, with his humble demeanor and “ordinary guy” ethos, but in reality the demystification of the papacy began well before, reaching all the way back to Pope John XXIII, “Good Pope John,” who succeeded Pius XII.
St. John Paul II himself did a great deal to speed things along, always wearing his heart on his sleeve and allowing his humanity, including his personal friendships, to help shape his view of the world and his behavior. He let us see him elated, angry, weary, bored, and engaged — the full range of emotions that popes not so long ago did everything in their power to suppress.
Obviously, however, the process of reframing perceptions is not yet complete, because otherwise people wouldn’t get worked up over the suggestion that a pope, like anyone else on the planet, may once have experienced romantic passion.
In other words, perhaps the real takeaway from the ferment over John Paul’s “secret” letters should be this: Popes, it turns out, are people, too.