John Paul II's Friend Remembers 1st Signs of Sanctity

Says Wojtyła Election to Peter’s Throne Didn’t Change Him

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By Chiara Santomiero

ROME, MAY 19, 2011 ( The friendship between Stanislaw Nagy and Karol Wojtyła began on a train from Lublin to Krakow.

It would continue for 30 years, though Wojtyła would be taken far from their homeland and be weighted with the responsibility of the world. It was a 30-year friendship characterized by passionate discussions on theology and the Church, often with skis on their feet, during snowy excursions in God’s creation.

Stanislaw Nagy was born in 1921, the year after Wojtyła. He was ordained a priest of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in 1945, as the war was ending. And some years after his friend was elected Pope, he was made a cardinal though he wasn’t yet a bishop. The cardinal appointment was John Paul II’s recognition of his old ski companion’s contributions to ecclesiology studies.

Cardinal Nagy was not in St. Peter’s Square this month on the day of his friend Karol’s beatification, but in Zakopane, where they skied together so many times. And he celebrated a liturgy of thanksgiving at the Shrine of the Virgin of Fatima — almost at the same time that Benedict XVI was celebrating Mass in Rome — in which he consecrated the first altar in Poland dedicated to John Paul II.

He was not in Rome either when Cardinal Wojtyła began his pontificate on Oct. 22, 1978. The Pope chided him for this fact, with the light irony that characterized him. «I was very astonished,» recalled Cardinal Nagy, «when one of the Polish priests who had been present at the inauguration of the pontificate gave me a letter from the newly elected. In it he wrote: ‘What kind of theologian studies the Pope and his role in the Church and does not come to see him?'»

Despite their contact as university companions and later when Wojtyła was archbishop of Krakow and called him for advice on theological questions and to prepare the diocesan synods, «I did not consider myself his friend, so great was the distance that it seemed to me separated us,» Cardinal Nagy said.

«I considered him a very intelligent man, of exceptional capacities, marked by a high sense of morality,» he explained. «I did not feel capable of reaching him, because he was higher than me.»

Leaving home

The cardinal remembers how Wojtyła was already known and esteemed in the Vatican long before becoming Peter’s Successor: «Paul VI knew him and liked him; he called him to preach the Lent spiritual exercises of 1976 for the Pontiff and the Roman Curia.»

The Poles, too, were conscious of his worth, but not even Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland, thought that Wojtyła could become Pope, Cardinal Nagy said.

John Paul I’s death was a blow for his friend, the cardinal remembered. «One could perceive the anxiety that went through him.»

And he added: «I learned of his election through Free Europe, the clandestine radio, which was more surprised than I was. I was in Lublin and among the students there was a great explosion of joy: At that moment I realized that the Wojtyła I knew was becoming another person.»

But the future cardinal would discover he was mistaken: Pope Wojtyła was still the same ski companion Nagy had always known.

The year of his election, John Paul II invited him to Rome for the consecration of the new archbishop of Krakow, Franciszek Macharski.

«While coming down the steps of the plane, a man approached me and told me I was invited to dine with the Pope and he then accompanied me to him. I saw Wojtyła for the first time dressed in white,» Cardinal Nagy remembered. «He was the same as before: simple, open, cordial — as the brother who had spent so many hours with me on the mountain talking about this or that topic — and, at the same time, he was full of majesty. An aura of seriousness and holiness emanated from him.»

Blessed friendship

Cardinal Nagy said he has continually asked himself when he first realized «that I was dealing with a candidate to the altar.»

«I think the first indication was the intensity of his prayer,» he offered. In the mountains «I saw his simple and open nature, but at the same time I saw how he always tried to retire to pray. Already then he was a mystic. This impression was strengthened in the subsequent 26 years of his pontificate.»

«When he approached the altar,» the cardinal continued, «it seemed as if he belonged to another world and when he was already old and suffering, this transfiguration was even more evident.»

The Pope’s friend, now 89 years old, reflected that another sign of John Paul’s sanctity was his «way of enduring suffering with infinite patience, so that it wouldn’t interrupt his work.»

Cardinal Nagy saw the Polish Pontiff for the last time on Jan. 21, 2005, the day before he was hospitalized for the last time in «Vatican III,» as he called the Gemelli Polyclinic.

«I was not present at his death, but a few days later, I was able to speak with direct witnesses who told me how the last moments were and what his last words were: ‘Let me go to the Father,'» the cardinal said. «Those words represent the seal of a life, because he lived all his life in the encounter with God.»

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