December 23, 2008


I recently had the opportunity to go to a private screening of the documentary "Testimony," based on the recollections of Pope John Paul II's personal secretary of thirty-nine years: Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwicz (pronounced "Jivish," the "J" being soft as in Zsa Zsa Gabor). Cardinal Dziwicz came out with a book, "A Life with Karol," earlier this year that revealed some little-known facts and episodes of the Great Pope's life. Cardinal Dziwicz had been keeping a page-a-day diary on John Paul II, thus the title of the movie, "Testimony." Karol Wojtyla chose Dziwicz to be his personal secretary in 1966 when Wojtyla was still Archbishop of Krakow, so no one in the world was a closer or more extensive eye-witness than Dziwicz.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mega-JP2G groupie. No one has impacted my faith more than John Paul II from my teenage years till the present. I am of the belief that he is one of the greatest human beings (never mind one of the greatest saints) to ever walk the planet, and I have to be careful when I give presentations on the philosophy of John Paul II and his Theology of the Body, because I begin to seriously GUSH about him and my audience begins to seriously edge their chairs away from me. Seriously.

So there I was on Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago (what could best be described as an annex of Polonia itself), in the Center for the Arts, waiting for the screening to begin. Only Polish was being spoken, classical music was playing, Polish intellectuals milled among Polish artists' work adorning the walls, champagne was being served. The Polish clergy that were present kept trying to start a conversation with me (in Polish). I was forced to decline (even though I have a Polish name, I haven't an ounce of Polish blood in me). I began to wonder if the movie was in Polish (it wasn't).

"Testimony," narrated by Michael York, is the project of a Polish Knight of Malta who is ambassador of the Knights to Cuba. He collected thirty hours of interviews with Cardinal Dziwicz, and one hundred hours of footage of John Paul II, much of it never before seen by the general public. The film's premier was already held at the Vatican with Pope Benedict in attendance who commented: "This is the best movie about the humanity and sanctity of John Paul II." One of the last scenes of the film is John Paul II on Easter, 2005, trying to speak from his window to the crowds below, and being unable to. The producer of the film was unable to speak to us for a while after the screening because he always gets very moved by this scene.

What makes this documentary different from other fine documentaries on "the people's Pope"? First of all, the rare footage. You will see John Paul II being made a Cardinal, on his way to Vatican II, at Vatican II. You will see the hushed-up second attempt on his life in Fatima (yes, it's on film). You will see a whimsical event when a large, seated statue of a Polish Madonna is being crowned. The men holding her tip her and her scepter falls. Guess who catches it? The priests who were present joked to Cardinal Wojtyla: "See, Mary is sharing her power with you!" Did you know that he liked coffee and sweets? That, when Pope, he sang a different Christmas carol every night after supper until February 2? Did you know that he forgave his would-be assassin even in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? Are you sufficiently enticed?

Secondly, this documentary is deeply personal. It is John Paul II through the eyes of Dziwicz, what he has chosen to highlight from the beginning of Karol's life till the end. For example, the Theology of the Body is not even mentioned, and neither are most of his encyclicals. But John Paul II's need to be in the mountains was stressed (he used to sneak out of the Vatican without security to go to the mountains). John Paul II's relationship with his native Poland and struggle with Communism is also stressed. An encounter with a possessed woman is reenacted. (The reenactments--often woven with bits of real footage and stills--are masterful.)

Needless to say, I bawled my eyes out during most of the film, but they were joyful tears. We can still enjoy our beloved Holy Father's beautiful face and perpetual smile through the art and science of film.

"Testimony" will be aired on EWTN (and the DVD will be available exclusively from EWTN until Easter when it will be in general release).

For more on the Knights of Malta:

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