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Wanda Poltawska, John Paul II Book Author, Responds To Church Criticism

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WARSAW, Poland — To him, she was "My Dear Dusia" and he signed his letters "Br" _ short for brother.

She was one of a handful of people by his bedside when he died, and visited him in the hospital when he survived an assassination attempt.

In the cloistered universe of the Vatican, Pope John Paul II had a woman friend with whom he shared spiritual thoughts in a series of letters that spanned the decades. Now she is defending her recent book of correspondence with the pope against criticism from church officials that she "exaggerated" her friendship with the late pontiff and could delay his beatification.

Wanda Poltawska, 87, said her book _ a collection of her religious meditations and John Paul's letters of spiritual guidance _ was harmless to his saint-making process and she dismissed those who sought to minimize her friendship with the Polish-born John Paul.

"Things that are sacred and great are not to be shown to the people," Poltawska said in an interview from her home in Krakow, in southern Poland, where the Rev. Karol Wojtyla was a frequent family guest before being elected pope in 1978.

"What is wrong in a priest's friendship with a woman? Isn't a priest a human being?" she asked.

No one has publicly suggested Poltawska and John Paul had a romantic relationship, and the book makes no such claim. The two, who campaigned together against abortion in Poland under communism, referred to one another as brother and sister, and she often visited the pope with her husband, a philosopher, and four daughters in tow.

But responding to any possible speculation, Poltawska told The Associated Press: "We worked together on the same thing. We got to know each other in work, not in anything else."

John Paul's longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, has criticized Poltawska for publishing the book, saying she claimed to have had a special relationship with the late pontiff that never existed.

In a recent interview with Italian daily La Stampa, Dziwisz said John Paul had many dear old friends from Poland, and made them all feel like they had a preferential friendship.

"That was his secret: to make all those who were dear to him feel like they had a special relationship with him," Dziwisz said. "The difference is that Ms. Poltawska exaggerates in her attitude, and the expressions and display of her behavior are inappropriate and out of place."

Poltawska, a survivor of a German Nazi death camp, was at John Paul's bedside in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace when he died April 2, 2005. She was at his side when he was hospitalized in the months before his death, and visited him at Rome's Gemelli hospital when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt.

And her photos attest to a friendship that began in the 1950s when she sought out a priest to give her spiritual guidance to overcome the trauma she suffered during almost four years at the German Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbrueck, where she witnessed the killings of babies and children. Wojtyla became that priest.

While occupying Poland during World War II, the Germans arrested the then-19-year-old Poltawska for her activities in the Polish resistance. She was imprisoned, tortured under questioning and then sent to Ravensbrueck, where she was submitted to the Nazi's medical experiments with germs injected into her leg.

Poltawska published "The Beskidy Mountains Recollections" in February. It includes her meditations on biblical quotations suggested by the pope in letters he addressed to "Dusia" _ the nickname she goes by _ and signed Br, short for brat, or brother in Polish.

The 570-page book recalls annual family vacations with Wojtyla before he became pope in the Beskidy Mountains, trips that were filled with praying and religious discussions. It includes pictures of her family with the pope at the Vatican and vacationing in Castel Gandolfo, the papal holiday residence outside Rome.

It includes her diary entries from trips she took after he was elected pope to the places where they had vacationed, where she reminisces with great longing about their times together. She writes detailed descriptions of the places for the pope, who, ensconced in the Vatican, would write to her of how much he missed the mountains and rivers.

And it contains letters back to Poltawska, including one in which John Paul said he believed God had given her to him as his project, considering her difficult personality and her haunting Ravensbrueck past.

"I ask (in prayer) for patience for you, for patience in all these tiny daily chores that are shaking your balance - as if shaking you away from that other truth," he wrote on Aug. 10, 1978, just before going into the conclave that elected his briefly serving predecessor, John Paul I, pope.

"I ask God every day in the intention of Andrzej (her husband) and all your children. God has entrusted you to me with your deep and uneasy 'I' and with your whole life, with everything that belongs to it. I will report on this task before God."

Poltawska, a psychiatrist and family life counselor, said her family's friendship with Wojtyla was not publicly obvious "because we did not talk about it in public, we were discreet."

The emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, criticized Poltawska for publishing her letters, accusing her of withholding the correspondence from the Vatican's beatification process and urging her to turn it over so the process can proceed and "avoid future possible problems."

"We're talking about 55 years of correspondence _ a lifetime _ so we need to supplement our research into documents we know exist, all the more because it's unusual for such a large collection to exist between a pope and a longtime friend," he was quoted as saying by La Stampa.

Poltawska said she made the letters and text of the book available to Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish prelate who is spearheading the beatification cause.

Oder told the AP that while he couldn't comment directly because he was bound by a vow of secrecy, Poltawska "is a serious person and what she says warrants respect."

Reached Thursday by the AP, Saraiva Martins said he merely meant to say that Poltawska should have turned over all the letters to church officials two to three years ago when Oder was gathering documentation in support of his beatification, the first step before possible sainthood.

"It wasn't done and it should have been," Saraiva Martins said. Asked if it had since been handed over to the Vatican, he said he didn't know.

Pope Benedict XVI put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his 2005 death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" that erupted in St. Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

The preliminary investigation into John Paul's life and virtues, which gathered boxes of documentation as well as testimony from around the world, wrapped up in 2007 when the case was handed over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Theologians, bishops and cardinals are now reviewing the dossier.

Poltawska has no doubt he will one day be sainted. To her, Wojtyla was a "paragon of modesty, poverty and sainthood."

"He loved all people and wanted to save all," she said. "He had nothing: no car, no TV, no phone, nothing. Just a backpack and his prayer book."


Winfield reported from Rome

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