The whole day with the Pope
Piotr Chmielinski talks to Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, the second personal secretary of John Paul II.
– Why did the Pope like Tuesdays most?
– He liked all days of the week. But Tuesdays were free, without any official meetings and audiences. So he could read, write or spend time in nature. When he could he left the Vatican.
– How did you become the personal secretary of John Paul II?
– I think that the Divine Providence controls all things and it was God that called me to priesthood and then sent to studies in Rome. After having completed my doctorate I worked in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Thanks to Cardinal Marian Jaworski I had the chance to meet John Paul II and his secretary Fr Stanislaw Dziwisz. This is how I got to know the Pope. And afterwards the Holy Father called me and asked me to be his second secretary. It was on 21 February 1996.
– What did your first meeting with the Pope after your appointment look like?
– I greeted the Pope in the corridor in the Vatican, at the lift. He welcomed me very cordially although with some reserve. He told me to feel at home and that we would meet soon at supper. During the meal the atmosphere was so friendly and family, so my anxiety disappeared.
– However, there was some anxiety earlier. Did you fear how you would carry out your duties?
– Yes, I did. It was a great challenge. I did not finish any diplomatic school. But Fr Dziwisz reassured me that I would certainly fulfil my duties.
– Let us briefly look at a typical day of John Paul II in the Vatican. What time did the Pope get up?
– At the beginning of his pontificate he got up at 5 or 5.15. Then he got up a little later. The morning toilet, some gymnastics and long prayers, including the Rosary, which the Holy Father recited lying prostrate. Then there was time for Mass celebrated at 6.30 during the first years of his pontificate, then at 7.00 or 7.30 and towards the end of his life at 8.00.
– We know that there were guests invited to participate in the papal Masses…
– Yes, there were. First of all, these were believers from all over the world who had asked about the possibility to take part in the papal Eucharist. But there were also the bishops who came ‘ad limina’ or representatives of various religious congregations who had their chapters in Rome.
– Did the Pope deliver homilies?
– On the weekdays rather not. After the Gospel had been read there was some silence.
– What language did the Pope celebrate Masses in?
– In Latin or in the language the guests spoke.
– After the Masses there were meetings with the guests…
– Yes, there were. Just after the Eucharist the Holy Father prayed for a while and the guests went to the special room and waited for him there. John Paul II approached every guest, greeted him/her asking where they came from and what the reasons of their visits to Rome were. Everyone received a papal rosary. Directly after the meeting there was time for breakfast.
– With the guests?
– Often with the guests. There were many guests during meals. Especially during lunches. Then the frequent guests were the bishops from all over the world who had just arrived in Rome. Sometimes on Sundays the meals were very Polish because there were guests from Poland who used to tell the Holy Father about our homeland.
– So people talked a lot during those meals?
– Yes, they did. The meal lasted about one hour and a half. It was the time to discuss many matters.
– Did the Pope have his favourite dishes?
– He liked scrambled eggs, buckwheat groats, and sweets for dessert. But he ate whatever was served. With appetite and relish.
– Did the Pope watch television?
– Sometimes he watched the news in Polish. Especially when there were no guests or when there were people in the company of whom television could be switched on. But he watched only the beginning of the news, the summery of the most important headlines.
– Did he make any comments on the news?
– He was always cautious in expressing his comments.
– Did he talk about political matters with the priests, with his secretaries?
– Very seldom. He discussed these matters with his, so to say, minister of foreign affairs, with the prefects of particular congregations. Such meetings, with his collaborators, ministers from the Roman Curia, were held daily between 6 and 7 p.m. On Fridays the Pope met the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Holy Father met his guests at official audiences, from 11.00 to 13.00. He met several up to dozens of people every day. Then he had lunch, and more or less from 15.00 till 19.00 he had free time. He prayed, read documents and was busy with his writing.
– Did he read a lot?
– He read numerous books. The Pope looked over every book, the books that, for example someone gave him or some publishing house sent. He read several pages. And he left some book to read them through.
– Did he also read newspapers?
– Yes, he did. Every day the Secretary of State gave him summaries of articles. The Italian dailies were placed in the corridor. He looked them over after breakfast.
– And Polish newspapers?
– He also read them, e. g. ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’, ‘Niedziela’.
– Did he make comments on any articles? Perhaps he recommended priests to read some articles?
– Sometimes he actually discussed with us some topics that interested him.
– And what did his evenings look like?
– After supper he worked. He consulted some issues with us. We showed him documents, gave letters to be signed by him. He stayed late reading. He went to the chapel, he prayed, sang the Appeal of Jasna Gora. Before going to bed he looked at St Peter’s square in silence and he gave his blessing. He usually fell asleep at 22.30-23.00.
– He was a man of deep prayer. Did he like some forms of prayer?
– His spiritual life was very rich. His prayers were diverse. From meditation to recited prayers. He sang songs, recited litanies, prayed the Rosary. He prayed the Way of the Cross, the Lenten prayers, May and June services.
– And the breviary?
– Of course! Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is an obligation of every priest, including the pope. And John Paul II did not neglect it.
– What did you learn from John Paul II?
– Like the Holy Father I would like to be a good Christian, a good man. Like John Paul II I would like to have time for every person, to make contact with him or her.
– Are you trying to follow John Paul II in your bishop’s ministry?
– I wish I could shepherd the Church like he did. To be able to collaborate with those who are close to me, to have good relationships with people from all spheres of life.