The trouble with “Karol”

George Weigel


“Karol: A Man Who Became Pope,” which aired on the Hallmark channel this past August, is a beautiful film about the pre-papal life of the man the world knew as John Paul II. Piotr Adamczyk does a marvelous job as Karol Wojtyla; the brutalities of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the skullduggeries of Poland’s communists are powerfully conveyed. At the end, when Karol becomes pope, viewers can only conclude that this was a life in which grace built on remarkable natural gifts to produce a compelling witness to the power of truth and love in human affairs.

Which is precisely the conclusion one should draw from the early life of Karol Wojtyla. The problem is that “Karol” fictionalizes — and in some cases falsifies — the late pope’s pre-papal life.

I counted five historical errors or falsifications in the first four minutes of the film. There is no room here to list, in numbing detail, the dozens of things the filmmakers got wrong. It is important, however, to flag several major distortions and falsifications, before the mythologists completely take over the late pope’s story.

The personal drama of the first half of “Karol” includes the resolution of the young man’s relationship with “Hania,” in real life the Polish actress Halina Krolikiewicz Kwiatkowska (who was helpful to me when I was preparing Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II). Karol is portrayed as torn between the priesthood and his love for “Hania;” there is a wrenching moment when, during World War II, Hania blunders into a church and finds Karol in a cassock. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks; “I’m sorry,” he answers (as she cries on his shoulder), in what is clearly intended to be the film’s emotional hinge.

None of this is true. Karol Wojtyla and Halina Krolikiewicz were good friends, but there is no indication that they were planning marriage; moreover, the real-world Halina was very much part of Karol Wojtyla’s discussions with his friends about his vocation (as any reader of Witness to Hope would have known). The filmmakers want viewers to think that Hania, who doesn’t marry for seven years, was virtually crushed by Karol’s decision; in fact, the real-world Halina married shortly after the war and Father Karol Wojtyla baptized her first child in November 1946.

It gets worse. “Hania” moves to America where she is miraculously cured from a lethal disease through the intercession of Padre Pio, to whom her former boyfriend, now a bishop, had spoken of her illness. But this incident, in reality, involved someone else entirely — Dr. Wanda Poltowska, whom Bishop Wojtyla met in the late 1950s, not during the war (which Dr. Poltowska spent in a concentration camp).

And still worse: “Father Tomasz Zaleski,” who, before he’s shot by the Nazis, is portrayed as Karol’s close boyhood friend and, later, spiritual adviser, is a complete invention. Young Karol Wojtyla did have a spiritual director, Father Kazimierz Figliewicz, but Figliewicz was not his contemporary and was not shot by the Germans. The film does manage to credit the lay mystic Jan Tyranowski as an important influence on Wojtyla. The portrait of Tyranowski is all wrong, though (he’s depicted as a kind of wild-haired Slavic spiritualist, which is risibly false), and his meeting with Wojtyla is re-created as a kind of divine accident; Karol runs into a house to avoid the Gestapo and bumps into…the man who introduces him to St. John of the Cross! In fact, the pastor of Karol’s Kraków parish asked Tyranowski to take charge of the local youth ministry, and Tyranowski deliberately recruited Wojtyla.

The filmmakers also invent a member of a Wojtyla youth group who is really working for the SB, the secret police. This is not only a total fabrication; it’s an insult to the men and women who were, in fact, Karol Wojtyla’s closest lay friends, and whose networks were certainly not penetrated by Polish intelligence.

Legitimate artistic license cannot mean fiction that distorts the truth about a person; Karol Wojtyla’s story is dramatic enough without fictional add-ons. The makers of “Karol” didn’t understand that. Others pondering similar films should do better.


COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.