Pope John Paul II was one of the most influential figures
of the 20th Century, revered by millions and made a saint
in record time, just nine years after he died. The BBC has
seen letters he wrote to a married woman, the Polish-
born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that shed
new light on his emotional life.
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was a great hoarder, and she seems to
have kept everything relating to her 32-year friendship with Saint
John Paul. After her death, a huge cache of photographs was
found among her possessions. We are used to seeing John Paul
in formal papal clothing amid the grandeur of the Vatican, and yet
here he is on the ski slopes, wearing shorts on a lake-side
camping trip, and, in old age, entertaining privately in his rather
sparse-looking living quarters.
Even more revealing is the archive of letters that Anna-Teresa
Tymieniecka sold to the National Library of Poland in 2008. These
were kept away from public view until they were shown to the
When the two met in 1973, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla – as he then
was – was the Archbishop of Krakow. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka
was Polish by birth, and, like him, had endured the searing
experience of the Nazi occupation during World War Two. After
the war she left to study abroad and eventually pursued an
academic career as a philosopher in the United States, where she
married and had three children.
It is public knowledge that for four years Cardinal Wojtyla and
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka collaborated on an English-language
version of a book on philosophy he wrote while teaching at Lublin
University, and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka has a walk-on part in
several John Paul biographies. But the relationship was much
deeper and more complex, and continued for far longer than has
previously been recognised.
In 2008, the letters were bought by the National Library of Poland
for what is thought to be a seven-figure sum. Usually when a
library buys an important archive about a figure of Pope John
Paul’s stature you would expect a bit of a fanfare, and the letters
would be put on display and made available to scholars. But these
were kept away from public view.
Find out more
Watch Ed Stourton’s Panorama report: The Secret Letters of Pope
John Paul II on BBC One on Monday 15 February at 20:30. You can
catch up via the iPlayer.
In 1970s Poland any relationship between a clergyman and a
woman was risky. The communist regime in Warsaw regarded
the Catholic Church as the enemy, and the secret police – the SB,
as they were known – watched its leaders constantly. Dr Marek
Lasota, who has been studying communist-era files at the Institute
of National Remembrance in Krakow, says the SB took a
particularly close interest in Cardinal Wojtyla. “They installed
wiretaps in his flat and his telephone was bugged,” he says.
“Every letter was intercepted and checked, both private and
So the first hint of any real intimacy comes in a letter sent not
from Krakow, but from Rome, where Cardinal Wojtyla spent
more than a month attending a meeting of Catholic bishops in the
autumn of 1974. He took several of her letters with him so that he
could answer them “without using the mail”, and writes that they
are “so meaningful and deeply personal, even if they are written in
Towards the end of the letter he adds that “there are issues which
are too difficult for me to write about”.
I have only seen one side of the correspondence – his letters to
her – and it is, of course, sometimes impossible to know what the
cardinal is referring to. But I have done some old-fashioned
journalistic sleuthing, and I believe that at an early stage of the
relationship – probably in the summer of 1975 – Anna-Teresa
Tymieniecka told Karol Wojtyla that she was in love with him.
As Pope, John Paul rewrote the rules of the papacy, travelling the
world as no pope had done before him and, in the early days
especially, pulling the crowds like a rock star. His response to
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka’s declaration when he was a cardinal
showed he could be every bit as unconventional in his private life.
Far from ending the relationship, as a more prudent prelate might
have done, he gave her one of his most treasured possessions –
an item of devotional clothing known as a scapular.
Devotional scapulars are formed of two tiny bits of cloth, worn
next to the skin over the chest and back, designed to echo the full-
length, apron-like garments which monks wear over their habits.
Not many Catholics wear them now, but for centuries they were
widely used as a symbol of commitment to the Christian life. This
one had been given to Karol Wojtyla by his father at the time of
his first Holy Communion, and it seems that he invested it with a
special significance in his relationship with Anna-Teresa
He later told her that it allowed him to “accept and feel you
everywhere in all kinds of situations, whether you are close, or far
Cardinal Wojtyla had a number of female friends, including
Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist with whom he also
corresponded for decades.
But his letters to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka are at times more
intensely emotional, sometimes wrestling with the meaning of
In the summer of 1976 Cardinal Wojtyla was chosen to lead a
delegation of Polish bishops to a big Catholic gathering in the
United States, and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka invited him to stay
with her family at their country home outside the tiny town of
Pomfret in Vermont. It was just the sort of outdoor life he
enjoyed, and photographs that I think were taken at the time
show him at his most relaxed.
It also seems that she made a further declaration of her feelings
for him while he was there, because the letter he wrote to her
afterwards suggests he was struggling to make sense of the
relationship in Christian terms. He tells her she is a gift from God,
and goes on: “If I did not have this conviction, some moral
certainty of Grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not
dare act like this.”
When he was elected Pope, John Paul wrote to Anna-Teresa
Tymieniecka to say that he wanted their connection to continue.
He said he did not want “the exchange of ideas, which I have
always thought to be so creative and fruitful” to be interrupted.
But they fell out badly over the book they had been working on
together. She rushed it into print, but the Vatican mounted a legal
challenge against it, and she was accused of having distorted the
new Pope’s ideas. When John Paul failed to stick up for her, she
But eventually the old warmth returned to the relationship, and
some of the most touching photographs and letters we have been
able to see relate to his old age.
John Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early
1990s, and became increasingly isolated in the Vatican. She visited
him often, and sent him pressed flowers and photographs from
her home at Pomfret. In one letter he told her: “I am thinking
about you, and in my thoughts I come to Pomfret every day.”
And his letters include frequent references to their shared past.
After his last visit to Poland in 2002 he wrote: “Our mutual
homeland; so many places where we met, where we had
conversations which were so important to us, where we
experienced the beauty of God’s presence.”
Anna-Teresa’s husband, Hendrik Houthakker, was a distinguished
Harvard economist. After the collapse of communism, he advised
John Paul on post-communist economies, and the Pope granted
him a papal knighthood in recognition of his services.
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka visited John Paul the day before he died
in 2005. He was declared a saint in 2014, and nothing I have found
would have been an obstacle to his canonisation. But the process
was done and dusted in record time – just nine years. I have been
unable to confirm that his correspondence with Anna-Teresa
Tymieniecka was considered during the saint-making process, as
it certainly should have been.
Carl Bernstein, the veteran investigative journalist of Watergate
fame, was the first writer to get some sense of Anna-Teresa
Tymieniecka’s importance in John Paul’s life. He interviewed her
for the book His Holiness in the 1990s.
“We are talking about Saint John Paul. This is an extraordinary
relationship,” he says. “It’s not illicit, nonetheless it’s fascinating. It
changes our perception of him.”
Pope John Paul II was one of the most influential figures