John Paul II's Host on Ski Trips Pens Memoir

‘Secret Life’ Said to Capture Polish Pontiff’s Essence

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, AUG. 30, 2012 ( A good number of intimate portraits have been written about Blessed Pope John Paul II over the years, revealing his obvious sanctity and profound sense of humanity.

But a new book, to be published for the first time in English this fall by Saint Benedict Press, manages to capture the essence of the late Pontiff in a way that few have managed before, mainly because it involves a close study of John Paul in one of his most beloved environments: the mountains.

Called “The Secret Life of John Paul II,” the book is written by Lino Zani, an Italian mountaineer and ski instructor, who accompanied the Pope on many skiing and hiking trips in Italy, a large number of which were secret getaways for the Pope who felt pent up in the Vatican.

It’s now fairly well known that John Paul II would regularly escape the apostolic palace unannounced, making an estimated 100 clandestine trips to ski or hike in the Italian mountains. According to his long-serving personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope, Dziwisz and two of his Polish aides would pack up the trunk of a car owned by one of the priests, and smuggle themselves out of the Vatican to the nearby towns in the mountains, a couple of hours drive from Rome.

Cardinal Dziwisz, writing in his 2007 book, “A Life with Karol,” recalled that no one would recognize the Pope on the slopes, who would often be wearing sunglasses and be dressed as other skiers, and take his place in the ski lift queues like everyone else.

Zani would also sometimes join those secretive parties as a guide, having struck up a close personal friendship with John Paul II when the Pope made his first clandestine trip to his parents’ home in the northern Italian Alps in July 1984.

Then aged 27, Zani recalls in impressive detail that initial memorable visit when he and his family, in Italy’s Brescia mountainous region close to a glacier, were visited by then-Fr. Dziwisz, and later by the Pope’s legendary head of security, Commander Camillo Cibin.

The Zani family immediately struck up a rapport with Dziwisz who had arrived with a couple of other Polish priests to scout out the area to see if it was appropriate for a secret visit from the Pope. The Polish secretary judged that the Zani’s home, though rather spartan and with a shared bathroom, was a suitable place for the Pope to stay.

The shock and disbelief with which this humble family in the Alps greeted the “strange and unexpected” possibility of hosting the Pope is touchingly conveyed by Zani, who together with his mother agreed to keep it absolutely secret, initially not even telling his father. Zani also describes how the then-president of Italy, Sandro Pertini, got wind of the trip and was duly invited by the Pope to join him.

The banter and good humour between the 80-year-old Pertini and the Pope on the skiing excursion is a pleasure to read, and gives an insight both into John Paul II’s own well-known wit and playfulness and the obvious ease with which Pertini could relate to the Pope.

In the mountains, Zani tells of how John Paul II always preserved a sense of wonder like that of a child who does not take creation for granted. He also remembers him as an expert and daring skier:

“At first I tried to stay close to the Pope, but then I realized that he was doing perfectly fine without my help, and in fact preferred to be on his own. We made run after run, going up in the ‘cat’ [tracked vehicle for travelling on snow] and skiing back down… The Pope skied very well, confidently, with his skis parallel like an expert skier. He was even a bit of a daredevil. He loved the slope, the steepest runs. He had an unusual and unique posture, leaning forward a bit, but this was probably due to the fact that he had learned to ski in the Tatra Mountains in Poland, where the skis were more rigid and required that kind of posture.

“He was imaginative in selecting the runs, asking me if we could start from one spot rather than another. There was a light, fleeting happiness that flashed across his face during the speedy descent, and his eyes became those of a child, carefree and profoundly joyful. Every now and then he would exclaim, ‘Lino, what exceptional snow you have up here!’ The snowcat, with Pertini and the other guests on board, accompanied us and then descended to the valley, waiting to take us back up until the president, with his booming voice, called out to the Pope, ‘Your Holiness, you ski like a swallow!’”

That summer trip on the alpine glacier was the first of what would become John Paul’s regular summer holidays. Every year in July he would travel to Valle d’Aosta in the northwest Italian Alps, or Lorenzago di Cadore in the northeast, where he would go hiking. It was a tradition followed by Pope Benedict XVI until 2009 when he preferred to take his summer vacation at Castel Gandolfo.

But during the winters, John Paul II would continue to take clandestine ski trips, usually to the Abruzzi or Sabine mountains near Rome. Zani recounts that although no one would usually recognize the Pope, that wasn’t always the case:

“I remember one morning when we passed a boy of about eight years old a couple times on the ski lift. He kept looking at the Pope, who smiled gently at him. At a certain point, after two or three runs, the boy came up to us and asked him point-blank, ‘Are you the Pope?’

“’Yes, do you want to ski with me?’

“They rode up together several times, one behind the other on the little seats, while I enjoyed the incredible scene from a distance. I remember that at a certain point the boy went over to his mother, who was sunning herself in a chair down in the valley near the bottom of the ski lift, and shouted, ‘Mom, did you know I’m skiing with the Pope?’

“The lady just shook her head. John Paul was highly amused, and late in the morning he wanted to go say hello to her. I will never forget that woman’s flabbergasted expression—even today, she must wonder if it was all a dream!”

But for all the light-heartedness and good humour of the secret trips, Zani also shares insights into the Pope’s humanity and personal holiness, not only his acts of charity and kindness, but also times of melancholy, deep reflection and total absorption in prayer and meditation. He recalls moments of anger and irritation when security prevented him from meeting ordinary people, and how deeply he was affected when Zani told him of the unspeakable suffering, valour and sacrifice of the alpine soldiers who died during World War I on the mountains where they would ski.

The author also shares his own struggles and tragedies, particularly his inability to settle down and raise a family, and how the late Pope helped him with his difficulties as a true pastor. He notes that the Pope never gave the impression of being judgemental, but always gave advice with kindness, and never stopped pointing out the right path – characteristics that he believes were the key to his great popularity.

Central to the book is a mountain wooden cross, the Cresta Croce. After Zani explained to John Paul that it marked where many soldiers had fallen in World War I, it would become very dear to the Pope who asked that a granite cross and altar be placed there. He returned a few years later to bless it.   

An intrepid adventurer who would make two climbs of Everest and visit the North Pole, Zani was a natural kindred spirit for John Paul II — someone whom the late Pope would call an “apostle of the mountains” — and their mutual affection and respect is clear.

A sensitive and heartfelt tribute, Zani successfully brings some unique and profound insights into the private life and character of Blessed John Paul II, a Pope who found some of his greatest spiritual solace among views “stretching out to the ho
rizon where he could put himself in the presence of the infinite.”

Excerpts courtesy of Saint Benedict Press

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