Karol Wojtyla demonstrated his attention to and respect for women - as well as the sympathy with which he looked upon the other half of the human race – in the Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem. For the first time in the history of the Church, John Paul II solemnly recognized the importance of women in salvation history and even bowed before that which he called, “feminine genius.”
The document is the result of the late Pope’s personal experience of important friendships with women: friendships which continued even during his pontificate. Never before, in fact, had a Pope been seen unhesitatingly embracing his female friends in fraternal affection. His openness towards women was confirmed by the great Polish actress, Halina Krolikiewicz-Kwiatkowska, who in her youth acted in the clandestine theatre with Wojtyla, a form of cultural resistance to Nazi occupation.
The woman, however, who was closest to Karol Wojtyla was Wanda Poltawska, who called him Brother. Wanda was his friend from the early 50’s, as their letters published in the Italian book, Diary of a Friendship , attest; a correspondence which lasted until John Paul II’s death. Don Karol spent holidays and vacations with Wanda and her philosopher husband, Andrzej and their four daughters, sharing their love for the woods and mountains, camping under the stars and morning masses under the trees. Once elected Pope, John Paul II confirmed that he felt the family to be, “like those dearest to me,” and continued to spend the most important moments of his life, such as his first Christmas in Rome, with them and especially with Wanda.
The letters reveal without a doubt his influence on Wanda, a psychiatrist to whom the young priest became spiritual director, but also Wanda’s influence on the late Pope. As a woman, and mother and even more as a doctor, she became a perfect consultant for problems of family and sexuality which Wojtyla considered some of the most urgent that the Church of his time needed to address. Poltawska’s advice was especially useful during the preparation of Humanae vitae , to which Cardinal Wojtyla made a considerable contribution as part of the commission instituted by Paul VI to study the problem. In the years following, Wanda dedicated all of her free time to explaining the encyclical to lay people and priests through articles and conferences and was for many years the soul of the Institute for the Family founded in Krakow by the Archbishop.
But her contribution was not only one of support and medical and family advice. Wanda’s experience as a detainee for four years in Ravensbruck when she was just 15 years old for participating as a scout in the Polish resistance and where she was subject to very painful scientific experiments which forced her to undergo serious operations in the following years - was at the base of her passionate battle for human life. Wanda wrote that her defense of babies had its roots in her experience in the camps: there were pregnant women and “the Nazis didn’t force the women to abort but waited until the birth” and not “for altruistic reasons but simply to not reduce the labor involved” and “not have sick women.” After their birth, though, those babies were left to die from hunger in the infirmary or were thrown alive into the ovens. Having witnessed those horrible scenes, “I decided,” wrote Poltawska, “once and for all that, if I survived that hell, I would defend all babies without exception.” Wojtyla shared this battle in which he considered the role of lay people indispensable, as his friend wrote.
For her part, Wanda, as mother and as doctor, realized the necessity of a “theology of the body” which clearly explained how “the transmission of life must be a plan of God,” that one needs to discover. Wojtyla, after his election as Pontiff, would dedicate an important and innovative catechesis cycle to the theology of the body.
The profuse commitment of both for the family and the defense of life was born, then, also from a reflection on what happened in the concentration camps. A connection between the evil of the 20th century and the use of scientific progress without respect for morals was one Romano Guardini understood well. In his brief text, The Right to Life Before Birth , written against the legalization of abortion in Germany just after Nazism, clearly outlines the connection between devaluing human life in all its forms and dictatorial utopias of the last century. Communist Russia and Nazi Germany in fact were among the first countries to legalize abortion.
Recent history has demonstrated the dangers hidden in abandoning Christian morality in the name of blind faith in techno-scientific progress. Wanda, who lived the good and the evil of these new human capacities, provided invaluable support to her Brother. To Pope John Paul II.
St. Peter’s Square
Oct. 18, 2019
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