A Portrait of the Pope As a Young Man

Roger Cohen’s lovely “family story” about an encounter with the young Pope John Paul II appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Wednesday. It has been linked by Hugh Hewitt, the Belmont Club and others, and was on Best of the Web today. So you’ve likely already seen it; if not, don’t miss it:

In January 1945, at 13, she emerged from a Nazi labor camp in Czestochowa, Poland, a waif on the verge of death. Separated from her family, unaware that her mother had been killed by the Germans, she could scarcely walk.
But walk she did, to a train station, where she climbed onto a coal wagon. The train moved slowly, the wind cut through her. When the cold became too much to bear, she got off the train at a village called Jendzejuw. In a corner of the station, she sat. Nobody looked at her, a girl in the striped and numbered uniform of a prisoner, late in a terrible war. Unable to move, Edith waited.
Death was approaching, but a young man approached first, “very good looking,” as she recalled, and vigorous. He wore a long robe and appeared to the girl to be a priest. “Why are you here?” he asked. “What are you doing?”
Edith said she was trying to get to Krakow to find her parents.
The man disappeared. He came back with a cup of tea. Edith drank. He said he could help her get to Krakow. Again, the mysterious benefactor went away, returning with bread and cheese.
They talked about the advancing Soviet army. Edith said she believed her parents and younger sister, Judith, were alive.
“Try to stand,” the man said. Edith tried – and failed. The man carried her to another village, where he put her in the cattle car of a train bound for Krakow. Another family was there. The man got in beside Edith, covered her with his cloak, and set about making a small fire.
His name, he told Edith, was Karol Wojtyla.

I love that laconic line: “The man carried her to another village…” I think Cohen is exactly right, too, in his assessment of how John Paul’s experience of history contributed to his overriding concerns as a theologian:

The great opiates of the 20th century – communist and fascist ideology – promised to subsume the individual into the collective glory of a beckoning utopia, but they delivered only new and more terrible forms of suffering.
In his early, and very personal, observation and absorption of this suffering lie the roots of the late pope’s core belief: the inalienable value and sanctity of each human life.

I can’t help noting, too, that Cohen’s piece is unlike anything I have read before in the International Herald Tribune.


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