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A “Tough Little Churchman”

May 2024
1min read

During one of my early visits to Poland, long before I even dreamed of writing about that nation, a counselor said, “If you want to catch the real spirit of this land, you ought to visit that tough little churchman down in Cracow,” and in this way I met the formidable Karol Cardinal Wojtyla. I had long talks with him and found him to be as promised, a clever, fighting clergyman, taller than I had been led to believe, and much better at English. I remember his sparkling eyes and the way he grew excited when those about him spoke of his long battle to protect Catholic Poland from the pressures of Communist Russia. I concluded from that first visit that here was an unusual man in a difficult position.

Years later, after several other visits, I was taken back to Cracow by an American television crew that wanted to film me in conversation with some high official of the Polish Catholic Church, and by a stroke of luck we were able to make an extensive film with my old friend Cardinal Wojtyla in the garden of his residence as he spoke on the problems of serving as a leader in a church surrounded on all sides by Communists. He was sagacious, witty, totally aware of his position, and eager to share his thoughts. I finished the interview thinking: “This fellow knows precisely what he’s doing and what he hopes to achieve.”

On an October day in 1978 American newscasts flashed the astonishing report that a Polish cardinal had been elected Pope, and after the name had been mispronounced hideously—it’s voy-tee-ya—I realized that this miracle involved my old acquaintance. In the next three hours my phone rang incessantly, because the networks had discovered that the only television interview in English with the new Pope was the one I had made. On the evening news that night the film, a handsome one, flashed around the nation demonstrating that the new man was amiable, clever, and a master of English.

I had had a brush with history without knowing it. Had I in that first meeting with Wojtyla had an inkling that he might one day become Pope? Not a glimmer. Did I suspect it at the end of the television interview? Not a chance. On the other hand, when as Pope he proved to be the great man the world knows, was I surprised? Not at all.

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