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HomePerspectiveGeorge WeigelWhat’s in a “milieu”?

What’s in a “milieu”?

Pope John Paul II’s spiritual testament, which was read to the College of Cardinals a few days after his death and later released to the press, beautifully captures the spirit of a man for whom life’s most important question was, “What is God asking of me now?”

The first segment of the testament was written during John Paul’s Lenten retreat in March 1979, a few months after his election. During subsequent retreats, the Pope reflected on what he had written, adding further notes as seemed appropriate in 1980, 1982, 1985, and 2000. At the end of the last addition, John Paul thanks his parents, his brother and sister, his home parish, his friends from school days, and the first parishes he served as a young priest. The testament’s last words sum up the life of a great Christian disciple: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”

Yet the translators of the original Polish text (which was first brought into Italian, and then from Italian into other languages) made a mistake that should be corrected. They evidently didn’t recognize the deeply personal meaning for John Paul II of the Polish word Srodowisko, rendering it simply as “the milieu of…,” towards the end of the list of those whom John Paul wanted particularly to thank for their presence in his life. Which, of course, doesn’t make much sense, or indeed any sense.

Unless you know that Srodowisko was the term used by the late pope to identify the large group of lay men and women whom he had come to know when he was a young university chaplain in the late 1940s and early 1950s — men and women who became some of Karol Wojtyla’s closest friends and remained his friends for the rest of his life. By thanking those he called “my Srodowisko,” John Paul was bearing witness to a truth that marked him as a very distinctive bishop and pope — one who was formed into his ministry by friendships with lay people, even as he was forming them into mature Catholic professionals, spouses, and parents.

About two hours after John Paul’s funeral Mass, my cell phone went off as I was walking, physically exhausted and emotionally drained, from our NBC platform high above St. Peter’s Square back to the Roman apartment where I was staying, four blocks from the Vatican. The call was from was a member of the late pope’s Srodowisko, Piotr Malecki, Wojtyla’s first altar boy at St. Florian’s parish in Krakow, now a distinguished research physicist. He had flown down to Rome the night before with his wife, Teresa (vice rector of the Krakow Academy of Music), Teresa’s sister Maria Rybicka, and the Polish philosopher Karol Tarnowski — veteran Srodowisko members all, who had spent the night camped out somewhere in Rome, waiting to pray their great friend home to the house of the Father. We managed to find each other amidst the hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of the Vatican precincts and went to the apartment for tea, wine, and tears, trying to imagine a world without Wujek, “Uncle,” the name these no-longer-quite so-young men and women had given their beloved Father Wojtyla a half-century before — the name they called him until the day he died.

I couldn’t have been graced with four better companions on that unforgettable day. Like me, they were still awestruck by the epic outpouring of affection and esteem that had led millions of people to drop everything and head for Rome to pay their respects to someone whom most of them had never met. We tried to figure it out; it seemed that a world forgetful of paternity had found, in Pope John Paul II, a father.

If that was the deep truth of what April 8, 2005, signified, then the record should note that God’s gifts of paternal grace to Karol Wojtyla worked in tandem with the men and women of his Srodowisko, with whom he practiced the arts of paternity. The people of Srodowisko are no small part of the story of John Paul the Great, for which we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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