John Paul II
A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man
By Ray Flynn, Robin Moore, Jim Vrabel
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Ray Flynn
All rights reserved.
A Polish cardinal talks about dockworkers in a church in Boston
The first time I met Karol Wojtyla was in September 1969. I was running for public office — state representative from South Boston, Massachusetts — for the first time, and I got a call from a friend of mine, Joe Aleks, who was very active in Boston's Polish American community.
"Ray," he said, "they're having a time down at St. Adalbert's in Hyde Park on Sunday. If you want to get the Polish vote, you oughta be there." Before I had a chance to ask any questions, Joe hung up. But I had enough confidence in his political instincts that when Sunday came around I headed out to St. Adalbert's.
A "time" in Boston political, social, and religious circles is any event or reception that is held to honor someone — living or dead. People are judged by whose "times" they attend, just as the person being honored is judged by the attendance at their "time." It was only when I got to St. Adalbert's that evening that I found out that this "time" was being held for the Archbishop of Kraków, the first Polish cardinal ever to visit the United States.
I have to admit, I didn't know anything about the guest of honor. But I did know the person hosting the event, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. Like me, Cushing had been born and raised in "Southie" (South Boston). When I was a kid, I sold him his newspaper from my spot at the corner of Broadway and Dorchester Street in Andrew Square and I remembered that when Archbishop Cushing was made cardinal, everybody in the neighborhood was so proud that one of our own had become a prince of the church. As the years went by everybody in the whole city of Boston came to love the gravel-voiced, craggy-faced archbishop, famous for his wisecracks and for mixing politics and religion.
During the Mass that preceded the reception that evening, Cardinal Cushing gave the guest of honor a warm welcome. He praised Cardinal Wojtyla's strong leadership in Poland during "this difficult hour." He talked about how Wojtyla was close to the "working classes" because he had worked in a chemical factory as a young man. He told those attending the Mass about the cardinal's standing up to the Communist government and getting the first church in the new "worker's city" of Nowa Huta. Turning to look at his Polish colleague, he also described how students and intellectuals flocked to him by the thousands.
I was impressed by Cardinal Cushing's introduction of this Polish cardinal. I was even more impressed by what I heard afterward, at the reception, while I was waiting on the line to meet him. "He's quite a guy," one of the priests from Our Lady of Czestochowa parish in South Boston told me. "They say he was in the Polish underground during the war. Afterward, he was a theology and philosophy teacher before he became a bishop."
I began to pay more attention to this special visitor. He was a handsome, solidly built man with a wide, open face and clear eyes. There was a kind of glow, a shining look that emanated from his face. He seemed comfortable "working the room," as we call it in politics. He stood at the end of the receiving line in the parish hall after some priests, monsignors and bishops and next to Cushing. As people came up, he'd speak to them, sometimes in Polish, sometimes in English.
"How are you? Good to meet you. Good to see you," I heard him say to people ahead of me as I waited to be introduced to him. Some people — politicians, priests, celebrities — aren't really all that comfortable with the "pressing the flesh" side of the business, but this guy seemed to like it.
When it came my turn to meet this Cardinal Wojtyla, Cardinal Cushing introduced me by saying, "Your Eminence, this is one of my neighbors from South Boston, Ray Flynn. Ray was a good athlete in school, a basketball player." The cardinal from Poland nodded his head to show he understood. "An athlete?" he said. "I was a soccer player myself."
Then Cushing, as if thinking of something less trivial and more appropriate to say, added, "Ray's father is a dockworker. He helps us run the Communion breakfasts. Sometimes we get a thousand people at them." The Boston cardinal was referring to the annual Communion breakfast at St. Vincent de Paul Church. Back then, before containerization and automation, thousands of men made their living on the docks of the port of Boston, and many priests worked closely with them, not just in religious issues but on issues of employment, working conditions, and wages. It was very much like the world captured in the movie On the Waterfront, where Karl Malden portrays a priest who tries to help keep the dockworkers' union from being taken over by gangsters.
Cardinal Wojtyla was shaking my hand when Cardinal Cushing made the comment about my father, and the Polish cardinal wouldn't let go. He squeezed it as if he recognized a connection, as if we had something in common. "Dockworkers," he said, in his halting English. "Much work ... very difficult ... not safety on the ships."
I was startled by his words. I knew all about the "not safety," the dangerous conditions. My father had gone to our parish priest for help when he and his fellow workers suffered bites from the spiders and other insects that attached themselves to the animal hides they unloaded from South America. My wife's father, who was also a dockworker, had been injured when a roll of sheet steel had fallen on his leg. After that, he was never able to work again. I had worked on the docks myself, alongside my father — until he convinced me to go to college and find a different line of work. I was surprised that this Polish cardinal would comment on the dockworker's life, but I shouldn't have been. Years later, I would discover that Father Wojtyla's first published article, in the Polish Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny in 1949, concerned the worker-priest movement on the docks of Marseilles in France.
I would have liked to talk more with the guest of honor. But it was time for me to move on. There was a long line behind me. As I left him, I heard one of the priests introduce the next person in line, an older woman from the parish. "... and this is Mrs. ..., Your Eminence. She made the dumplings." As he said this, the priest pointed to the table on the other side of the room overflowing with various dishes of Polish food. The smell of it all — the kielbasa, kapusta, and golumbki — brought back memories of growing up in the Polish section of South Boston around Andrew Square before my family moved to an area called City Point. It obviously brought back memories for our special guest, too.
"The Polish in America have not forgotten how to cook," Cardinal Wojtyla said. "It is all good. Too good!" he said, patting his stomach. "My clothes won't fit me when I get back to Kraków." Everyone laughed at the cardinal's joke, including the cardinal himself. Once again I was surprised. Most of the Polish priests I knew from Our Lady of Czestochowa and other parishes were more reserved and much less outgoing. This guy was more like an Irish priest in the way he interacted with people and joked around, even with people he had never met.
Somebody brought a baby to be blessed, and the cardinal took it willingly and confidently, not like a lot of priests I'd seen, who were nervous when handling babies. Cardinal Wojtyla held up the baby and made faces at it and got the child to laugh. The cardinal didn't seem self-conscious, didn't seem to take himself too seriously. Cardinal Cushing looked on, approvingly, since Cushing himself loved to clown around and wear funny hats. This Polish cardinal seemed to have that same confidence and sense of humor. He also appeared to have a kind of inner peace about him, a serenity. He wasn't rushing anybody. He talked to people as long as they had something to say. He didn't just nod to them while looking beyond them to the next person in line. And when he was done with one person, he accorded the next person the same special treatment, as if he or she were the only one in the room. The cardinal didn't appear to be in a hurry. He seemed glad to be there, in that room, in that part of the world. He seemed comfortable, as though he were part of the family. As a would-be politician who was still not all that comfortable in these kinds of settings, I realized I could learn something from this guy.
"Yes, and where are you from? Where is your family from?" Cardinal Wojtyla asked person after person in the line. "When did they come? Do you write to them? Have you ever been back?" When someone said they were from Kraków, I saw the cardinal's eyes light up. "What's the name again?" He would ask, and "where does your family live?" He didn't just ask one question, he posed follow-up queries. He seemed like an uncle from Poland who hadn't seen the rest of his family, those who had come to America, in many years.
"How old?" he asked someone who brought children up to meet him. Then, bending down to the kids: "Do you like school? Do you study hard?" Then, standing up and talking to the parents again, he said, "Do you teach them Polish? It is good for children to know their language. And to know God loves them."
In South Boston, we frequently had visitors, including priests and bishops, from Ireland. Many people in the neighborhood still had family in the Auld Sod and visited back and forth all the time. I remember thinking, after I had already gone through the receiving line and was standing off to the side, how different it must be for Polish Americans. They couldn't go back and forth that easily. I didn't know what the rules were about writing letters or sending money. Many Polish Americans were founding prosperous, middle-class families in this generation. I didn't know if they could share their prosperity with their families back in Communist Eastern Europe. I made a mental note to find out more about what they were going through.
The reception continued. It was very informal, very lighthearted, as if everyone was taking a cue from the guest of honor. A band began to play polka music. People were laughing. Children were running around underfoot. It was more like a wedding reception than a party for a visiting church dignitary. I took advantage of the opportunity to talk with all my old neighbors and remind them I was running for state representative. But I keep looking over my shoulder at this visiting cardinal. I remember wondering how America must seem to him. When this was all over we'd get in our cars and drive back home, get up tomorrow morning, and go to work in a free country — and take it all for granted. Life must have been so different for him, growing up under the Nazis and then becoming a priest under a Communist regime.
I remember wishing I had more time to talk to this Cardinal Wojtyla, to ask him more questions. I was intrigued by him. There was something special about him. I didn't know he would go on to become pope, of course, but, even so, I wished I could get to know him better. Little did I know I would have the chance.
A POLISH POPE IN ROME
And a celebration in South Boston
Almost ten years went by. I heard Cardinal Wojtyla's name mentioned once in a while in Boston's Polish community, and saw his picture occasionally in some of the Polish newspapers, but I don't think I ever noticed a mention of him in the "mainstream" press. That is, until October 16, 1978, when the whole world heard his name and he became John Paul II, the first Polish pope.
I heard the news on my car radio as I was driving home from a meeting at City Hall and knew enough to head directly for the Polish area of South Boston. As a state legislator, I had represented the area, but my ties went much farther back than that. I had been born in the neighborhood, on Boston Street, right around corner from our Lady of Czestochowa church and right next to the Polish American Citizens Club. In fact, my christening had been held at the P.A.C. We lived so close to it that my mother handed me through the window of our house to my aunt who had already gone next door to the party.
Upon entering politics, I kept up my connection there. On Saturdays, I'd hold "office hours" at the P.A.C., setting up a table right next to one used by people collecting donations for the Polish relief society. I would also attend the annual installation of the officers of the P.A.C. and the Kosciusko American Legion Post, and the wreath-laying ceremony in front of the statue of General Thaddeus Kosciusko — Polish patriot and hero of the American Revolution — that stands in the Boston Public Garden.
On this particular day, as I drove into the Polish neighborhood, I saw that people already had heard the news. They were pouring out of their houses, wanting to share their joy, wanting to be together, wanting to celebrate. With no public square in which to congregate as they might have done back in Poland, they streamed from all directions toward the church of Our Lady of Czestochowa on Dorchester Avenue. At the statue of Our Lady in front of the church, they placed piles of red and white flowers, the colors of Poland. They also piled flowers in front of the portrait of the Black Madonna inside.
I entered the church, which was rapidly filling up. People knelt in prayer. Old women, kerchiefs on their heads, said the rosary as tears of joy lined their faces. There were plenty of men in the church, too. Unlike some other groups, the Polish men didn't leave God for the women only. Looking around the church, I recognized a number of other local politicians, many who I'd never seen in this part of town before. Today, though, everybody wanted to be Polish.
The priests of the parish quickly organized and celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. In his homily, the pastor reminded us of the new pope's visit to Boston when he was a cardinal. I thought back to the brief time I'd spent with him, and the deep impression he'd made on me. Evidently, I realized, I wasn't the only one he impressed. The pastor also talked about the history of Poland, and how, like that of the Catholic Church, it was rooted in suffering and pain. Sometimes, though, he said, there were events like today when God gives us a cause for extraordinary joy and hope. When it came time to sing, people joined in with so much gusto that they almost took the roof off the church.
After Mass, people poured outside and stood milling around on the sidewalk. It seemed as if no one wanted to go home, no one wanted the evening to end. To accommodate the people's need to celebrate together, the priests opened up a function room in St. Mary's School, right around the corner on Boston Street. Coffee and cookies were brought in and the celebration continued.
Today, my daughter Maureen teaches at St. Mary's, and she says some of the nuns and people who work at the school still talk about that day, the way Red Sox fans talk about the team winning the 1967 pennant. In both cases, it was the fulfillment of what seemed like an impossible dream.
Paul Wolon, a Boston police officer, and his wife Magdalene, lived in the first floor of a three-decker right across the street from the church, and they invited a bunch of us back to their place for an impromptu house party. Magdalene opened up a big Krakus Polish ham, and started making sandwiches for everyone. Paul brought out the Polish beer. I remember that Paul's mother, who lived there too, had the biggest collection of porcelain figures — Hummels, I think they're called — that I ever saw. That night, sitting in the living room, surrounded by her Hummels, and by a bunch of her women friends who, like her, were immigrants to this country, she prayed the rosary while Polish music played on the record player.
Just when it seemed that the house party was winding down, Joe Szep, president of the Polish American Citizens Club, called to say that the band had just started playing and that everyone was invited to come over to the P.A.C. We all took him up on his offer, including Mrs. Wolon and her cronies, and beer flowed and polka music played long into the night.
Years later, I had the opportunity to tell John Paul II about the celebration that took place in South Boston when he was named pope. A playful smile crossed his face, and the Holy Father said to me: "You told me what time the party started — but not when it came to an end." (Continues...)
Excerpted from John Paul II by Ray Flynn, Robin Moore, Jim Vrabel. Copyright © 2001 Ray Flynn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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