He did not only strengthen us

Anna Cichoblazinska talks to Prof. Jan Ryn, psychiatrist, specialist in mountain medicine, former Polish Ambassador to Chile and Bolivia.

ANNA CICHOBLAZINSKA: - Professor Ryn, we have arranged a meeting to talk about John Paul II and his love of the mountains and to discuss how Latin America saw him. But we are talking at the place that reminds us so much of Prof. Antoni Kepinski. So we cannot omit the subject of the friendship of those two great figures, who were connected with Krakow.

PROF. ZDZISLAW JAN RYN: - Three years after the death of my master Prof. Antoni Kepinski (1918-72) the Metropolitan of Krakow Cardinal Karol Wojtyla hosted a confidential symposium on the life and work of Kepinski in the bishops' residence. At the request of Cardinal Wojtyla the symposium was organised by a young priest Dr. Jozef Tischner. During the symposium Cardinal Wojtyla testified to his friendship with Prof. Kepinski. He recollected getting to know him at the train station in Krakow in 1936 when they, as high school students, travelled together to the congress of the presidents of the Marian Sodality (Sodalicja Marianska). Kepinski was the President of the Marian Sodality at the Nowodworski Grammar School in Krakow and Wojtyla was the President of the Marian Sodality at the Marcin Wadowita School in Wadowice. It was hot June and the train was crowded. They were talking and eating cherries in the train corridor during the whole night. Cardinal Wojtyla stressed that he had been convinced then that Kepinski had seen his future more brightly than him. That friendship, though it was discrete, lasted until Kepinski's death in June 1972.
Cardinal Wojtyla used to visit our clinic. He was the first to visit the priests and nuns who were in hospital. Those visits were occasions to talk and discuss various issues. When I read the Pope's speeches about suffering and illness I recollected him uttering the same words during our encounters. Years later, when the clinic was named after John Paul II, on behalf of the Polish physicians I was privileged to hand the Holy Father a collection of Kepinski's thoughts and aphorisms. Then the Pope mentioned that he had known Prof. Kepinski, and had respected him very much. In fact, when Kepinski died we informed Cardinal Wojtyla, who was abroad then, about his death. He asked us to wait with the funeral. After his return he celebrated Mass and conducted the funeral to the Salwator cemetery in Krakow.
Among Kepinski's papers there was a note with his 'last will'. There were only two points. The first one was directed to us, his collaborators, asking us to drink some 'sliwowica lacka' (vodka) ( that was his favourite drink. In his second point he asked us not to deliver any speeches during his funeral. Cardinal Wojtyla spoke only a few words of thanksgiving and farewell.

- Currently, various media prepare funeral speeches concerning great people weeks or years in advance.

- That's true. I accompanied a team of the Chilean television that spent two weeks in Krakow four years before the death of John Paul II. They wanted to film the spiritual roots of the Pope. I took two weeks off and we followed all the paths, which Fr Karol Wojtyla and then John Paul II, had walked. Later we went to the Vatican and gave a copy of the film to the Holy Father. The film that was made by the television of the distant Chile. It was only during our last dinner that they revealed that the film would be broadcast after John Paul II's death.
When I learnt what I had been involved in I felt shivers down my spine. During that time the government in Chile had decided to announce three day mourning in the country after the death of John Paul II and Channel 13 would broadcast only films about John Paul II.
When I landed in Santiago de Chile four years later, being invited to a congress on mountain medicine, I learnt that John Paul II had died. I was asked to introduce the film about the Holy Father, the film I had helped to make. Nobody believed that I had come to participate in a scientific congress. People thought I had been sent to promote that film and to recall the figure of the Holy Father on television. The medical congress changed its character after the Pope's death. It was dedicated to the Pope.

- The inhabitants of Latin America treated John Paul II in a special way...

- Few people know that the figure of John Paul II has been rooted there more than in our country. We looked at the Holy Father in a slightly egocentric way. We said, 'Our Pope", 'Polish Pope'. They also said 'Our Pope' but that was a different meaning.
John Paul II visited Latin America several times. His first pilgrimage was to Mexico. And then he visited Mexico many times; he visited Brazil and other countries in this region. Almost all countries. Actually these are the countries where most Catholics live. The Pope was aware that the decadency of Europe would cause the vector of Catholicism move to Latin American countries. He spoke their language, he knew Spanish very well. He had a gift to speak to their sensitivity, religiousness and even the syncretism, which has actually existed especially among the poor until today. I mean the pre-Columbian beliefs in which Catholicism, brought by the conquistadors and their missionaries, was put over the primitive faith in the existence of some higher being. The Hispanic loved John Paul II and he could appreciate that. I think that in his apostolic visits apart from the protocol of the pilgrimage, i.e. meetings with presidents, representatives of governments, dignitaries, he spoke mainly to the peoples of Latin America. Additionally, he noticed the groups whom others did not see. This is obviously the region with great gaps between richness and poverty. No one showed so much love to the local Indians, the Metises, the marginalized ethnic groups, the rightful inhabitants of this region. He was the only Pope who greeted the inhabitants of Easter Island during the meeting with the youth in Valparaiso. He was the only Pope who greeted the scientists in the Antarctic during his visit to Puerto Montt (Chile). He sanctified the first Indian saints of Latin America: St Juan Diego (beautification in 1990, canonisation in 2002 in Guadalupe, Mexico) and St Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes, Carmelite sister (beautification in 1987 in Santiago de Chile, canonisation in 1993). For the countries and nations who canonised their first saints, that means creating cultural foundations. This fact is extremely important to the awareness of the inhabitants of Chile and Mexico. The experience of canonisation of the first Indian and the canonisation of the victims of persecutions were of great importance, which we cannot understand fully. That's why, when John Paul II died they experienced that in their own specific way. Funeral Masses were celebrated everywhere, in big cities and small pueblos. The people of Argentina, where I went to after leaving Chile, experienced his death as if some family member died. We experienced the Pope's death in a patriotic way, somewhat through the prism of our Slavic pride, being proud of ourselves. The inhabitants of Latin America experienced that in a unique way. I watched that with admiration and unbelief. I understood what dimensions of John Paul II's personality had influenced the world. We still know little about them. We see the Holy Father in the family character of his meetings with us and we see him less through his teachings. Perhaps now is the time for deep reflection, to discuss what he taught us.

- The lives of the native people of Latin America are filled with spirituality more than the lives of the people of the West. That's why these reactions... But we also witnessed some decisive gestures of the Pope directed to the people of this region...

- You mean the famous wagging of his finger at them... That was not a threat but a gesture to take them to task. The Holy Father made many such gestures there and they were not only directed to the founder and followers of the theology of liberation. During the Pope's pilgrimage to Chile (1987) the left wing parties tried to disturb his meeting of with one million people at the stadium in Santiago de Chile, the same place where the regime of Augusto Pinochet had imprisoned the left wing activists, the communists who, in collaboration with Fidel Castro, wanted to subordinate this country to Moscow. A few years later I saw a film about that meeting. The camera showed the figure of the Pope closely, how he was irritated when the terrorists began playing the drums and raising shouts, disturbing him during the homily. John Paul II remained silent for a while and afterwards he pointed to Christ whose symbolic picture was placed at the stadium and exclaimed, 'Look at him!' and 'Love is stronger!' These words (El amor es mas fuerte) have remained on the walls until now. The Pope paralysed the terrorists by those words. They silenced as if their mouths were glued. But they had been prepared to disturb the biggest meeting of the Pope with the people of Chile!
Later I participated in several congresses organised in Rome by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to health Care Workers. After the morning Mass in the private chapel of the Holy Father there were meetings in the library. During those meetings the Holy Father asked me twice if his visit to Chile had accelerated the process of democratisation and shortened the period of the military regime in that country. He was interested whether the global situation had changed after his pilgrimages. He opened our eyes, our Polish eyes, during the hard communist period and encouraged us. He gave hope to the people of Chile. They said: 'enough' and elected the first civilian as President, and I was performing my diplomatic duties in this country when he was in office.

- It seems that the people living in this most mountainous country in the world love John Paul II for his love of the mountains...

- Because of this, on behalf of thousands of lovers of Andean mountaineering I had the privilege to invite the Holy Father to the World Mountains Day, organised in South America. John Paul II accepted the invitation and commented on it, saying his traditional words, 'God willing'.
I have already said that when the Holy Father died I was in Chile. Two days before my departure to Argentina the Presidents of the Chilean Federation of Andean Mountaineering and the Chilean Olympic Committee paid me a visit. They gave me a document in which they wrote that those institutions had decided to dedicate two halls to 'The First World Skier' as the man of the mountains in the Museum of the Military Mountainous School in the Andes in Rio Blanco and in the Museum of the Olympic Committee in Santiago.
Last year's conference at the Academy of Physical Education in Krakow, dedicated to the connections of John Paul II with the mountains, aimed at collecting as many materials concerning this subject as possible. About 20 speeches were presented and they analysed the statements of John Paul II about mountains. These statements constitute a kind of theology of the mountains. The recollections of his friends and students from the former pastoral centre, who had climbed the mountains with him, the collections of mountainous tourist badges and the documentations of his routes were very valuable. At the end of the conference there was a panel discussion in which several participants of the excursions with Fr Karol Wojtyla, commencing with the first trip to the Bieszczady Mountains, the skiing as well as kayak outings, took part. The discussion was led by Prof. Gabriel Turowski. Listening to these recollections was a spiritual feast. They revealed many unknown details. We organised a photo exhibition and people brought many unknown photographs with Karol Wojtyla. This was a priceless source of information. Delivering an inaugural lecture entitled 'John Paul II and the Mountains' at the congress of mountain medicine in Spain in November 2006 I presented 200 photos from those trips.

- Today Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz wrote in his book how the Pope 'bunked off' the Vatican to go to the Alps and we can see even more clearly how important nature was in the life of John Paul II. He did not only see it in the tourist, resting perspective but in some mystical one...

- That's right. For him nature was the background to see the relationship of man to the Creator. Man was a part of this nature and civilisation rooted him out of the context. John Paul II showed this immanent connection of man with the beauty of the land as the work of the Creator. He used his trips to the mountains to show people what was really important to them: he showed this vertical hierarchy of values and the mystical nature of man. Through his contacts with the young people, surrounded by the wonderful gifts of God, he showed, anticipating his time, how to conduct pastoral youth ministry. Thus he formed many generations of Poles.

"Niedziela" 9/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl