Defying the Dead’s Last Request: Publishing John Paul II’s Private Writings

by | Feb 19, 2014 | Uncategorized

Secret Journal, from Flickr user Christopher.Michel
Secret Journal, from Flickr user Christopher.Michel

Secret Journal, from Flickr user Christopher.Michel

(Este artículo también está disponible en Español)

How would you feel if your private journals were published posthumously?

In the past, I journaled profusely, and I definitely want all my journals burned (and text messages deleted!) when I die, not for my sake but for the sake of the people I complained about extensively.  No matter how I’m remembered after I die, I’ll try not to take others down with me, tempting though it might be.

Bl. Pope John Paul II also made a similar request, but probably not for the same reason. He asked that his long-time friend and confident, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, burn all his personal notes after his death.  Contrary to the deceased pontiff’s desire, Cardinal Dziwisz chose not to honor John Paul II’s request, and his notes were published last Wednesday.

Despite the criticism and controversy surrounding the Cardinal Dziwisz’s decision, he believed that he was acting in good conscience.  According to The New York Times, Cardinal Dziwisz told reporters: “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.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time Church officials have acted contrary to a reputably holy person’s instructions regarding personal writings.  Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (d. 1997), not wanting to be the center of attention, wrote to her bishops and spiritual directors several times during her life, desperately pleading with them to burn her private letters to them.  She wrote in 1956 to Archbishop Périer:

Please may I have them–as these were the very expression of my soul in those days.  I would like to burn all papers that disclose anything of me in them. […] I was [God’s] little instrument–now His will is known through the Constitutions [of the Missionaries of Charity]–all those letters are useless.

No one ever fully complied with her requests, and in 2007 Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, published her letters in “Mother Teresa: Come be My Light,” revealing some of the deepest and darkest moments of her spiritual life.

Moral lesson?  Write nothing, burn everything.  

Ok, not quite.  

Though it seems that officials blatantly ignored such petitions for privacy, much thought and prayer do go into the decision not to comply.  The words of a priest who knew Mother Teresa’s struggles, as quoted in Come, Be My Light, sheds light on the judgement of Cardinal Dziwisz and Fr. Kolodiejchuk:

Would Mother, now that she is no longer with us on earth, still object to these letters having been preserved by Cardinal Picachy and now, after her and his death, brought into the open?  By now she no doubt has understood that she belongs to the church.  It is traditional teaching that the mystical charism of God’s close friends is meant not primarily for themselves but for the good of the whole church.

Since the gifts Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II left behind were not for them alone in the first place, utmost prudence and care were requisite in handling and disposing these gifts.  And perhaps, one can say that no last words, no last will and testament, are more sacred than that which will most likely increase a community’s faith, hope, and love.    


Secret Journal image courtesy Flickr user Christopher.Michel