Cardinal Jozef Tomko remembers John Paul II
Wojtyła told me ‘I want to go to the Tatra Mountains’
He spent many intense days working together with John Paul II, sleepless
nights en route to the most remote countries, travelling with him on numerous
Visits. He shared the same passion for the mountains and the same yearning for
the freedom of peoples, he participated in his missionary concern, as a close
collaborator prior to the Synod of Bishops, then as Prefect of the Congregation
for the Evangelization of Peoples. Cardinal Jozef Tomko is a valuable and clear
witness of the Pontificate of Karol Wojtyła. In this interview he retraces the
main stages of his friendship with the Polish Pontiff. The following is a
translation, which was given in Italian.
In what year did you first meet Karol Wojtyła?
I met the young Archbishop of Krakow in October 1969. At that time I was Head of the doctrinal office of the new Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council the Dicastery was restructured by means of committees set up within the Episcopal Conferences. To explain and discuss the goals of the committees, the Congregation — under the guidance of the new prefect, Cardinal Franjo Šeper — met in Rome on 3-4 November 1969 with representatives of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, the Americas and Africa. Every episcopate was represented by a bishop and a theologian. Cardinal Wojtyła came to Rome from Poland with Fr Ròzycki.
Do you remember anything special about that meeting?
Cardinal Wojtyła invited Cardinal Šeper and I to dinner to celebrate his name-day, on 4 November 1969, at the residence next to Via delle Botteghe Oscure, in the centre of Rome. I still remember the brotherly atmosphere that he created among the numerous guests, getting everyone even Cardinal Šeper, to join in the singing. Cardinal Wojtyła’s simple, serene familiarity was accompanied by a profound sense of personal humility and of episcopal unity, as he later revealed during his visit to the Slovak Pontifical College of Sts Cyril and Methodius on Via Cassia. He went there with Cardinal Wyszyński, always keeping in the shadow of the great primate. The two Cardinals also understood the importance of the Institute for the Church in Slovakia in the period of persecution. At that time the Archbishop of Krakow secretly ordained the seminarians who were unable to become priests in our homeland.
And after his election to the Chair of Peter on 16 October 1978?
The young Pontiff immediately began to visit his co-workers in the individual dicasteries of the Roman Curia. I was then Undersecretary of the Congregation for Bishops, of which Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio was Prefect. The Pope began his Visit to our dicastery with an interview in the Prefect’s study, then he went on to the Secretary, Archbishop Civardi, and then he came to my room. I had a book open on the table about the Tatra Mountains, with very beautiful photos of the mountains we share, taken from both the Polish and the Slovak sides. John Paul II began to leaf through the book, with lively comments in his native tongue on every picture of Babia Góra, Rysy, the Gerlach Peak, while I answered in my Eastern Slovak dialect, which is very similar to Polish. Cardinal Baggio and the others present were awed, asking each other what these two Slavs were saying to each other! But they understood that it was not only the love of these mountains which united us.
Then John Paul II ordained you Bishop in 1979.
In July that year he called me to replace Cardinal Władysław Rubin, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, recently created a cardinal, and he appointed me archbishop. The Pope himself wished to be the one to consecrate me by the laying on of hands. He also found an answer to my problem of inviting many people to the ceremony; the Czechoslovak Government permitted only four of the faithful to leave the country to attend the Consecration.
What do you remember about the ceremony?
The Pope decided to ordain me in the Sistine Chapel on 15 September 1979, the Feast day of Sedembolestnà Panna Mària [Virgin of the Seven Sorrows] Patroness of Slovakia. He gave his Homily in Slovak and arranged to have Vatican Radio broadcast the solemn celebration to various Central European countries; Austrian television which could be viewed in Slovakia. The Sistine Chapel was crowded; more than 200 Slovaks who had left the country as tourists, arrived at the last minute, without the permission of regime and watched the ceremony on the screen at the Chapel door. I will never forget the imposition of hands; it seemed as if the Pontiff were impressing the Spirit on my soul. After the consecration John Paul II greeted the faithful in the Ducal Hall, walking among them and expressing his desire to go to our Tatra Mountains. For Slovakia and for the Church of silence this really boosted their hope which he, a master at reading the signs of the times and at using prophetic gestures, was able to instil even in the darkest moments of persecution.
Can you describe your experience serving the Synod of Bishops?
During my five busy years at the service of the Synod of Bishops I had the grace of experiencing John Paul II’s in the governance of the universal Church. I found very enlightening the extensive study entitled O Synodzie Biskupov, which Cardinal Wojtyła had published in Tygodnik powszechny on 5 March 1972. In any case, our task was very difficult: in fact, we had to launch a new institute, of which the bishops had little experience and which was virtually unknown to the Curia.
What suggestions did Pope Wojtyła make?
I benefited personally from the close support of the Pope. He followed the Synod’s activities personally: the preparation, the progress of the assemblies, and the subsequent work to bring them to fruition. Thanks to him, the Synod of Bishops came to the attention of the world’s episcopate and acquired esteem of the Roman Curia.
Which was the first Synod you were responsible for?
The Special Synod of the Bishops of The Netherlands which was celebrated in January 1980. The sorrowful situation of that once flourishing Church, the breach in communion between the bishops, the polarization of the faithful, the closure of seminaries and novitiates, the decline of the faith were all part of the sad picture which caused suffering to both the Pope and the bishops. The Successor of Peter felt duty-bound to exercise his mandate to preserve the unity of this Church and to strengthen his brethren. During the 16 days of laborious discussions the bishops formulated the Conclusions which served to renew ecclesial life. They were to become binding with the Pope’s approval.
Which other Synods did you work at?
In October 1980 the General Assembly was held on the theme: the Christian Family. The family, particularly in the Western world, was already in crisis. Every day the Pope presided at the Assembly and listened to all the interventions in the Hall. In fact he had chosen as a Relator the young Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. See how Providence works!
The Special Secretary was the Mexican Bishop Javier Lozano Barragán. Among the experts present, were Fr Dionigi Tettamanzi from Milan and Carlo Caffarra, professor at Lateran University, all of whom are now cardinals. The result of the Synod was the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, a document which continues to be pertinent today.
Three years later the Synod was dedicated to Reconciliation and Penance.
This Synod, held in the fall of 1983, was the second General Assembly that I organized under the guidance of the Pope. John Paul II chose Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini as Relator General and José Saraiva Martins, Rector of the Urban University, as Special Secretary, who is now a cardinal. For the Pontiff the Synod was “a particularly fruitful expression and instrument of collegiality”. So much so, that before publishing the resulting Apostolic Exhortation, he explicitly explained to me in confidence that this document was not only personal but above all the work of the Synod. We had studied the best way to express its collegial nature, and came up with the word — approved by the Pope — “post-synodal”, which was added to the title of the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia published in 1984. This was the first time in which the adjective “post-synodal” was ever used to define that type of document.
A further sign of this profound collegial and synodal sense was the insistence with which he advised me to check that all the Synod Fathers’ Propositiones in the Apostolic Exhortations had truly been taken into consideration.
Another subject he wished to be kept updated on was the prayers scheduled before and during the individual Assemblies. I had just launched the preparations for two other synodal assemblies, on the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and on the laity, when at the end of April of 1985 John Paul II unexpectedly called me to another type of service to the universal Church.
As Prefect of Propaganda Fide, you had the opportunity to work closely with John Paul II in the field of mission. Which aspect of that period do you remember best?
I was informed of my nomination as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 April 1985. Then at the General Audience in St Peter’s Square on the following Wednesday the Pontiff himself announced it together with the list of the cardinals who were to be created at the next Consistory, 25 May. That night I could not sleep. The field of action was immense: on one hand the promotion of missionary initiatives in the universal Church on the other, the direct responsibility for the missions, that is, the evangelization of two-thirds of humanity who still do not believe in Jesus Christ, and for the young Churches. Sixteen years of fruitful collaboration with the “first missionary” of the Church followed.
What did you learn from him?
Above all, I learned to turn to the Heart of the Saviour with my worries to alleviate the weight of my responsibility remembering in front of the Crucifix that the Church is his before all else. Every two or three weeks he received me in Audience, usually in the evening, and I came away tired because it was so intense but also serene and encouraging. I remember that his secretary, Mons. Stanisław Dziwisz, often opened the door discreetly to show us that dinner was ready, but the Pope patiently continued to speak, asked questions, made suggestions, offered information and took decisions.
What did you talk about?
First of all, about the appointments of bishops and the erected of new ecclesial circumscriptions. During my time at the dicastery we established about 180. At the beginning there were 877 and when I left 1,060. Whenever I proposal the establishment of a new diocese to the Pope, I felt like a godfather during a Baptism. Once in a while John Paul II liked to invite various people to the Apostolic table for lunch or dinner to discuss specific problems. He did a lot of listening and obtained various opinions from different perspectives which at times he gathered in a working synthesis.
What was your experience during your Journeys with him?
My journeys with the Pope to the mission territories were lessons in apostolic zeal and in dialogue with other religions, cultures and people on different continents. Beginning in August 1985 I had this privilege in all the missionary Visit the Pontiff made, experiencing together with him: impressions, joys, risks and efforts. Cardinal Casaroli, a spirited man, joked about the “division of work” between the Pope and us in his entourage: “The Pope exhausts himself and we are exhausted!”
Every journey required a lot of preparation, with which the competent dicastery helped. John Paul II regarded these Visits as “pilgrimages to the sanctuary of the People of God”. He did not hesitate to visit every continent more than once, but the Visits in the mission countries, scattered on every latitude, were the most difficult. The climate and hard work did not bother John Paul II who generously exerted himself, even sacrificing sleep.
I remember the longest journey in particular — 16 days — to Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and the Seychelles. After a few nights, I met the Pope in Canberra one morning and I asked him if he had slept, he answered with a smile: “Yes, the first night”. I thank the Lord that he gave me the grace to work with the great missionary Pontiff, the author of the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio — in the immense field of the evangelization of peoples.
Among Pope Wojtyła’s numerous trips there were three to Slovakia. What was the reaction?
After the fall of Communism, we met and greeted each other joyfully. By chance we simultaneously said the same phrase: “God is the godfather of history!”. The Pope immediately accepted the invitation to visit Czechoslovakia in April 1990 which included three stops: Prague, Velehrad, Moravia and Bratislava, where a million faithful awaited him all night in the park of the old Vajnory Airport in the soaking rain. His act of kissing Slovak ground sealed an old friendship and lived on in the memory of the Slovak people. In 1995 he returned to Slovakia.
During the Visit he was able to relax in the Tatra Mountains, flying over the peaks, many of which he knew, by helicopter. When he returned, he was obviously happy. Finally in September 2003, already suffering and confined to a chair, he returned to our land. It was my responsibility to help him one last time, that is, to read his Homilies and Addresses in Slovak. His farewell in Bratislava was moving, as he was seated meaningfully, almost identifying with it, beneath a large Crucifix. The Slovaks will not be able to forget these signs of friendship.
What was your experience during the last days of John Paul II’s life?
On Saturday evening, 2 April 2005, while the crowd in St Peter’s Square were singing the Salve Regina looking up at his window, when at 9:37 p.m. all the media across the world announced the Pope’s death. I confess that I had been expecting it, because on the previous evening when I saw him briefly, I found him all but dozing in his final battle. As soon as I heard the sorrowful news, I immediately went to see the body of this great historical figure, still lying on his bed of suffering with the majestic peace of death on his face. Kneeling, I prayed briefly, taking his hand, that hand that I could still feel on my head, and I kissed it in devotion. It was the hand of my spiritual father. There are certain invisible bonds which can never be broken. And now I have the joy of seeing the desire of that crowd cheering “Santo subito [sainthood now]” fulfilled. The wind that wonderfully turned the pages of the Gospel on John Paul II’s coffin still blows. His work continues to be present and to bear fruit: Peter continues to live in his Successors as Christ lives in his Church.
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