Today, May 7, the beatification process for the parents of Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005), who led the Catholic Church from 1978 as Pope John Paul II and was himself canonized a saint in 2014, opens in Wadowice, Poland. Also today, in Poland, Esprit and W Drodze are publishing the first complete biography of the couple, Emilia Kaczorowska (1884 -1929) and Karol Wojtyła senior (1879-1941), written by Professor Milena Kindziuk, of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, enriched with an introduction by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, long-time fomer secretary to the Pope.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a book on the mother and the father of Saint John Paul II, and what sources did you use for it?
The book is the result of an extensive study of the Pope’s family. A few years ago, I published a book on Emilia, Karol’s mom. I was especially interested in understanding who this woman was, mother of the family in which the future Pope would grow up. I was fascinated by her heroic attitude, when, despite a difficult pregnancy that threatened her life and the life of her baby, she refused the abortion recommended by her doctor, giving birth to a completely healthy son who would later become Pope. I agree with Mr. Renzo Allegri, the well-known Italian journalist and writer, who in a book by the intriguing title The Two Mothers of Pope Wojtyla: Emilia Kaczorowska and Gianna Beretta Molla, paralleled the life of Saint John Paul II’s mother with the fate of the saint who sacrificed her life to say “no” to abortion. Both these women, as Mr. Allegri points out, survived the great drama of motherhood: they had to choose between their own life and the life of the child they carried, and both chose to save the child by sacrificing themselves. Two heroic mothers, martyrs and saints.
The life of Karol Wojtyła’s mother was very short though…
It’s true. Emilia died in 1929, but recently I managed to find new oral and archival testimonies about her life and her troubled pregnancy. I also collected new documents concerning her husband, Karol Wojtyła senior, who after the death of his wife cared for his son, Karol junior, with great dedication until his death in 1941. Having so much unpublished and interesting material, I wrote a biography of both spouses: a historical biography, but at the same time also a spiritual one. I have also tried to show the context in which their lives took place: the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when southern Poland, where the Wojtyłas lived, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; then the heavy experience of the First World War (1914-1918); and finally the time when Poland regained independence in 1918. But I concentrated more on the daily family life of Emilia and Karol, a very simple existence in the midst of which they constantly manifested their faith, love, and Christian values in an extraordinary way.
What fo we know about Emilia Kaczorowska?
Emilia was born in Krakow in 1884 and grew up in the same city. There in 1906 she married Karol Wojtyła, a military man. Lieutenant Wojtyła was transferred to Wadowice in 1913, and the life of the Wojtyłas became intimately linked to that city—although during the First World War they had to escape (spending a whole year in Moravia, now in the Czech Republic). Emilia and Karol had three children, one of whom, a girl, died a few hours after birth. The eldest son, Edmund, became a doctor and died at the age of 26, struck by scarlet fever contracted while saving a patient. When Emilia gave birth to her second son, Karol junior, in 1920, her own health condition was profoundly undermined. The future Saint John Paul II always remembered her as a suffering person, but extremely tenacious, loving, and courageous. Karol probably learned from her his great sensitivity to human suffering.
The beatification process will concern both spouses, but obviously also evaluate them separately…
Yes, there will be two separate canonical trials, conducted by two independent tribunals, although the subject of their married life will be important. In fact, only one miracle obtained by the intercession of both will be enough to decree them Blessed. It is interesting to note that, thanks to the declarations left by Saint John Paul II on his parents, the Pope indirectly will be considered one of the witnesses of the double beatification process.
What testimonies did St. John Paul II leave about his parents?
The Saint spoke a lot about his father, with whom he spent many important years of his life. He said of him:
“My father has been admirable and almost all my memories of my childhood and adolescence refer to him. The violence of the vicissitudes of life that affected him opened up his immense spiritual depths; his pain became prayer. The mere fact of seeing him kneeling had a decisive influence on my young years. He was so demanding of himself that he had no need to show himself as being demanding with his son: his example was enough to teach discipline and the meaning of suffering. He was an exceptional being. He died rather suddenly during the war, under the Nazi occupation. I was not yet twenty-one years old.”
When the future Pope was 12 years old, he heard his father saying memorable words: “You are not a good altar boy! You don’t pray to the Holy Spirit enough. You must pray to Him.” Karol taught his son to pray in this way; the Pontiff himself recalled it years later: “It was a great spiritual lesson for me, longer-lasting and stronger than all that I received through my many readings and studies. In a certain sense, I owe him my encyclical on the Holy Spirit.” St. John Paul II was aware of the impact exerted on him by the great faith of his father.
The Pope also left memories of his mother, saying that she was the person who taught him the sign of the Cross as his first prayer. “This mystery was taught to me by the hands of my mother, who, by folding my little hands, showed me how to draw the Cross, the sign of Christ, who is the Son of the living God.” Emilia dreamed that one of her children would become a priest and the other a doctor. Saint John Paul II recalled this speaking to the French writer André Frossard: “My mother wanted two children: one a doctor, the other a priest; and my brother was a doctor and, despite everything, I became a priest.”
Can we say that the sanctity of the future Pope was born in his family?
There is no doubt that the Pope’s spirituality was formed in his family, mainly thanks to the behavior and faith of his parents. Cardinal Dziwisz, who has been close to Saint John Paul II for over forty years, is also convinced of this, from having listened to the Saint’s memories of his mom and dad.