Pope John Paul II Asked His Secretary to Burn His Papers. So He Published Them As A Book. (And the same thing happened to Justice Black)

February 13th, 2014

One of the key reasons why people write wills is to make sure their wishes are followed after they are no longer able to enforce them. I often joke that if some awful child ignores a parent’s will, the parent can haunt them, or punish them in the afterlife. In some cases, this may be enough to ensure that death-bed promises are followed. But what happens when the promise is made to the Pope. Well, this happened.

Defying a pope’s explicit instructions is not a widespread habit among Roman Catholic cardinals, especially when the pope in question is immensely popular, on the verge of sainthood and no longer able to object.

So the decision by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz to publish a book of Pope John Paul II’s personal notes, even though the pope’s last will and testament requested that he burn them, has attracted no small helping of controversy and moral indignation.

The book, “I Am Very Much in God’s Hands,” is due to be published Wednesday in Poland, John Paul’s native land. And many in the abidingly Catholic and conservative country are greeting it as an unholy betrayal — not least because Cardinal Dziwisz, now the archbishop of Krakow, was John Paul’s secretary throughout his pontificate, and one of his closest confidants.

What’s fascinating is that the Cardinal claims that he didn’t have the courage to destroy them!

Cardinal Dziwisz recently told reporters that he “did not have the courage” to follow John Paul’s orders to destroy the notes, which contain religious meditations written from July 1962, when he was a young bishop on the rise, to March 2003, when he had been pope for more than 24 years and Parkinson’s disease was eroding his health. John Paul, who died in 2005,will be canonized at the Vatican on April 27.

“In writing his will, the Holy Father knew he was entrusting these notebooks to someone who would treat them responsibly,” Cardinal Dziwisz said at a news conference in Krakow on Jan. 22. “I had no doubt these were such important items, testifying to the spirituality of a great pope, that it would be a crime to destroy them.” He invoked the despair of historians after the burning of Pope Pius XII’s letters.

There is a Supreme Court angle here, of course. Prior to his death, Justice Black asked his son to burn all of his papers. As his biography relates, this didn’t happen. The son couldn’t bear to destroy the documents, so he lied to his father about it. Imagine that!