ROME — This is exactly how rumors get started: a stash of intimate letters between two consenting adults—both hindered in one way or another from acting upon their forbidden love—is found hidden in a museum vault. Those letters, backed up by yellowed photos of shared vacations and secluded walks in the forests, seem to imply that the relationship was something more than platonic. If this were a Hollywood film script, we know how it might end. But this particular story is anything but. It is about Pope John Paul II and an attractive married American woman.
The treasure trove of loving letters was discovered in the museum by the BBC, which will air an investigative documentary into the affair, if that’s what it was, on Monday evening in London on its Panorama program. A sneak preview of the letters was dispatched early Monday, undoubtedly ensuring maximum viewership.
The woman in question is Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a respected Polish-American philosopher who wrote to the would-be pope in 1973 when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow. She admired his recent tome on philosophy and wrote to see if they might meet to discuss future work. She then flew to Poland a year later, where they met and decided to collaborate on an updated version of the book called The Acting Person, which is described as a work that “stresses that Man must ceaselessly unravel his mysteries and strive for a new and more mature expression of his nature.”
The BBC makes sure to point out that “There is no suggestion the Pope broke his vow of celibacy.” And then goes on to suggest just that through a series of photographs of the prelate and the philosopher on ski trips together and standing in front of a tent in the forest. In the tent photo, he is wearing swimming trunks and a T-shirt and she is wearing a long skirt. They are holding what look like letters and the then-cardinal has a look of confusion on his face. They could be talking about their forbidden love. Or, they could be talking about the weather.
The BBC then teases one of the letter’s salutations. “My dear Teresa, I have received all three letters. You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words.”
The letters, some written in what amounts to a secret “philosophical code” between the two, according to the BBC, were part of a collection kept in the back vault of the Polish National Museum, which acquired them when Ms. Tymieniecka sold them for a seven-figure sum in 2008 under the condition they would be kept secret until she died.
She passed away six years later, but the museum only recently got around to cataloguing them. The BBC was not shown any letters from Tymieniecka to the Pope, which are understood to be under lock and key in a Harvard University library, according to Carl Bernstein and Vatican expert Marco Politi, who interviewed her and dedicated 20 pages to her in their 1996 book His Holiness.
They describe Tymieniecka as one of the most important influences in the pontiff’s life: “In 1974, a vivacious, cosmopolitan Polish aristocrat entered the cardinal’s office convinced she had found a kindred philosophical spirit. Her name was Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, and for the next four years she and the cardinal embarked on a philosophical dialogue that resulted in a recasting and definitive English language edition of his most important written work.”
They also wrote that she, in fact, made him papabile or electable as pontiff: “Her interaction with the cardinal—weeks spent writing together, taking walks, laboring over the text of The Acting Person—and her introduction of Wojtyla first to the European philosophical community and then to American audiences were formative experiences for the young cardinal.”
The authors explain how the two worked together at her country home in Vermont where he “held mass each morning at a picnic table in the backyard,” and how he “borrowed her husband’s shorts to wear beneath his swimming trunks when they swam in a neighbor’s pond.”
They also worked together in Rome, Krakow, Switzerland, and Naples, and, according to the book, she says that on at least two occasions, “they quarreled seriously,” although she declined to say what their argument was about.
She spoke of him lovingly, telling the authors, “He makes a person feel there is nothing else on his mind, he is ready to do everything for the other person. … Due to his innate personal charm, which is one of his greatest weapons, he has in addition a poetical nature, a captivating way of dealing with people. These are all evidences of his charisma—even the way in which he moves.”
Bernstein and Politi also write about photos of the would-be pope at Tymieniecka’s piano in Vermont, describing her as “a fetching, diminutive woman in a miniskirt, her blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail.”
The authors even asked her if she had developed a romantic relationship with the cardinal “however one-sided it might have been.” She responded, “No, I never fell in love with the cardinal. How could I fall in love with a middle-aged clergyman? Besides, I’m a married woman.”
Dr. George Huntston Williams, who is also quoted in the Bernstein-Politi book, begs to differ. “Yes, of course there was that,” he says. “Eros is the basis of philosophy in a way. You have to love. She is a passionate human being. Hers was a Catholic passion towards Wojtyla, that is to say, it was restrained by his ecclesiastical dignity and her own understating of what restraints there would be. But there would be a lot of emotion, within those limits, on her part.”
No one may ever know exactly just what their relationship was really about. After all, they are both deceased, and buried with them is whatever secret, if any, they shared.
But Tymieniecka did remain close to the pontiff until his death. In fact, she visited Pope John Paul II on the day before he died in April 2005.
Tymieniecka herself died in 2014, just two months after John Paul II was declared a saint.