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She who taught the pope of love and sex

A half century of letters between John Paul II and a close, female friend may delay sainthood.

A Polish woman walks next to freshly painted graffiti of the late Pope John Paul II on a street in Krakow on April 8, 2005, six days after his death. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

WARSAW — A just-published collection of letters ruminating on love and sex that represent a half-century of correspondence  between Pope John Paul II and a dear, female friend has caught the Vatican by surprise  and may slow the  process of sainthood for one of the  most revered and beloved pontiffs in modern history.

The existence of the letters between Karol Wojtyla and Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist and devout Catholic mother of four, has created confusion in Rome, where officials in charge of the pontiff’s beatification are asking for her to turn over the full collection of their correspondence to the Vatican. In Poland, clerics are attacking her for publishing the letters.

“Mrs. Poltawska is usurping the exceptional nature of their ties, which were not so in reality. She was probably not the only person who had such long and close links with Karol Wojtyla,” said Stanislaw Dziwisz, now the cardinal of Krakow and formerly John Paul II’s personal secretary, in an interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

Dziwisz was known for his hostility to Poltawslka, a frequent guest at the Vatican, and she does not appear in his memoir of the pope’s life.

The relationship between the Wojtyla and Poltawska was far from romantic, and there is no suggestion of a physical relationship. She signed her letters “Dusia,” her nickname, and he signed his “Br,” for the Polish word “Brat,” or brother. The letters, published in Poltawska’s recent book, “Memories of the Beskidy Hills,” are unlikely to do anything to tarnish the image of the pope, but they do open a revealing window into the formation of his views on sexuality and contraception.

The fuss in Rome has made Poltawska’s book an enormous issue in Poland, where John Paul II remains a favorite son, with hundreds of statues of him gracing towns and villages, and many main streets named in his honor.

Poltawska’s friendship with Wojtyla began in 1956, in the ancient royal city of Krakow, where he was a young and dynamic priest acting as a chaplain to doctors and lecturing students. She was an acerbic psychiatrist who was looking for spiritual help to deal with the trauma of having been an inmate of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She had been sent there at the age of 19 for being a member of the Polish underground, and had been the victim of gruesome German medical experiments.

Wojtyla always felt a special affinity for her because of the wartime horrors she had experienced, a marked contrast to the relatively easy way in which he had survived the war.

The two, together with her husband, Andrzej, a philosopher, formed a deep friendship that ended up influencing the future pope in many key areas. Wojtyla and the Poltawskis would take long hikes and camping trips into the Beskidy hills of southeastern Poland.