Young Wojtyła Was Already a Man of Prayer
By Chiara Santomiero
ROME, 8 MAY 2011 (ZENIT)
"It was August of 1944. When the uprising in Warsaw against the Nazis began, Cardinal Sapieha decided to gather the students in the archbishop’s residence. That was the first time that I met Karol Wojtyła.”
Monsignor Kazimierz Suder reads the memories recorded in tiny script on the white pages before him with a calm voice. On the other side of the table, like students awaiting an exam, were the journalists who had come to Krakow to meet the sole surviving member of the group of eight young men who made up the clandestine seminary organized during the German occupation of Poland by the indomitable archbishop of Krakow, Adamo Sapieha, the city’s last prince-archbishop.
“During the Nazi occupation,” Monsignor Suder explained, “when a man expressed to the cardinal an intention to become a priest, the cardinal told him what to study at home in secret. None of us knew the others.”
This was a necessary measure after the Nazis found five young men staying in the seminary that they had closed; they arrested and shot them, while others were deported to Auschwitz. After this Cardinal Sapieha took the seminary underground.
On the wall behind the elderly priest hung a portrait of Karol Wojtyła in a thoughtful mood, with his chin resting on his hand. From the windows of the room there is a view of the Mariacka Basilica where 50 years ago he carried out his work as a spiritual director.
“The image of Karol on that August day is still much impressed on my memory,” Monsignor Suder said. “He had a white shirt and pants made of thick material with wooden clogs on his feet. A scar was evident on his forehead. Afterward, I found out that he had been hit by a truck.”
“He was a good companion,” he recalled. “He didn’t have problems with communication.” Wojtyła was “modest in speaking insofar as he preferred to listen; he gave his opinion on issues but he didn’t impose it, he tried to understand the other person; he never lied.”
The young Wojtyła lent out his notes — each page of his notebooks marked with the initials of Jesus and Mary — and he gladly helped friends with their studies, but not with exams. In response to one companion who asked for the answers during a test he said: “Focus for a moment, ask the Holy Spirit and then try to give the answers yourself.”
“He had a serene gaze,” Monsignor Suder continued, “and a sense of humor; he liked listening to jokes.”
“After the failure of the Warsaw uprising, the priests who had to flee the city came to the archbishop’s residence and we gave them our rooms and all slept together in the cardinal’s audience room, where we also had classes.”
This period of very close common life that continued until the Russians arrived in 1945 brought many of the young men close together. “I knew that he was born in Wadovice, that he had come to Krakow with his father after all of his family died and that after his father, too, died in 1941, he decided that the purpose of his life was the priesthood.”
Another characteristic of the young Wojtyła that remained alive in the memory of his classmate was “sensitivity to human suffering. He gave the poor everything he received but with great discretion so as not to make a show of his generosity.”
“Above all,” Suder added, “he had the gift of knowing how to pray.” He almost always prayed on his knees with the rosary in his hands and the Carmelite scapular about his neck. “He didn’t separate the study of theology from prayer; for him it was all one. After night prayer he would remain in the chapel with the theology manual or the notebook. Connecting study with prayer and vice versa was one of his characteristics.”
The monsignor also spoke of how the young men would see Cardinal Sapieha — a proud opponent of the Nazis and support of the Polish resistance — prone on the floor in prayer with his arms extended in the form of a cross.
Turning again to the photo of his old classmate, whose smiling face now has hung from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, he admitted with humility: “I never succeeded in achieving the concentration that he had in prayer.”
On to Rome
Wojtyła was ordained a priest on Nov. 1, 1946. On the following day he celebrated his first Mass in the Chapel of St. Leonard in the Wawel Cathedral and on Nov. 10 in the parish of Wadowice.
The great adventure that would contribute to changing the history of his country and the world had begun.
“In the same week,” Monsignor Suder noted, “Karol left for Rome for the doctorate, after only two years of study in the seminary.”