In a room in the Apostolic Palace by John Paul II’s bed stood a silver-framed photograph of his parents, taken shortly after their wedding. The Pope received it after his election. It accompanied him throughout his pontificate. Just like his mother’s locket engraved with a clover these two objects reminded him of her. They were a sign of spiritual bonding, longing, and also of the respect and gratitude he felt not only for his own mother, but for every woman.
A recurring memory
Karol Wojtyla retained a “rather vague” memory of his mother. However, he was aware of her contribution to his religious upbringing. He confessed that the mystery of faith “was taught to him by his mother’s hands, which – folding the little hands of a child to pray – showed him how to draw the cross – the sign of Christ…”. (Wadowice, 1991). He also knew that his mother “did not live to see the day of his first Holy Communion”. Emilia died on 13 April 1929, i.e. over a month before her son’s First Communion (25 May). He probably expressed much more in this confession than the chronology of events and his mother’s absence during the church ceremony. Probably both, mother and son, wanted very much to experience that day together.
Karol remembered his mother mainly as a sick person who sought advice from doctors, was frail and often needed to lie down.
When Emilia died, Karol was at school. Dad went there and asked one of the teachers to tell the child the sad news. Together they returned home.
The funeral took place three days later, on 16 April, in Wadowice. The next day the burial took place at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow, in the Kaczorowski family tomb.
The solace for loss
The day after the funeral the father took his sons on a pilgrimage to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska to a Marian Sanctuary. In front of the picture of the Mother of God he said to nine-year-old Lolek: “Now she will be your mother”. The bond with Mary over time became in his life a cure and solace for the loss of his mother. However, the Pope acknowledged that the loss of his mother was not just a sad memory, but an ever-present and even growing awareness of her absence, despite the passing years.
This is evidenced by one of Karol Wojtyla’s youthful poems, “Over This Your White Grave”, written in the spring of 1939, dedicated to “Emilia, my Mother”.
Over this your white grave
the flowers of life in white –
so many years without you –
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
“Grazie s. Emilia”
When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope, Sr. Emilia Ehrlich, an Ursuline nun, was preparing her habilitation thesis in biblical studies. The Bible was her passion in life. They knew each other well from their Krakow times. John Paul II asked Sister Emilia for her cooperation, which lasted more than twenty years. As an exegete and a theologian she helped to prepare documents, conducted correspondence, took care of the papal library, and edited summaries and studies of literature requested by the Pope. Sister Emilia spent whole days in Rome’s libraries preparing extensive, very careful dossiers on various subjects. John Paul II would read them, marking the places that caught his attention in order to ensure that a given thought was expressed or a specific biblical quotation was included in the papal documents. Each such dossier bears the Holy Father’s handwritten inscription: “Grazie s. Emilia”. Sometimes the form of thanks is longer. But it is significant that on none of the dossiers is the acknowledgement missing.
I think that this entry: “Grazie, s. Emilia” expresses the natural respect for women that characterised Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II.
It is difficult to say what influence the painful loss of his mother in early childhood and his spiritual relationship with Mary might have had on this respect for women. Certainly, these things were connected just as the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries are united in the Rosary and the Christian life.
Fot. ODPiS JP2