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Starting Point

A little boy who lost his mother ... and grew up to become pope


I had been perplexed for so long by Pope John Paul II’s attitudes toward women and his adamant refusal to discuss their full sacramental participation in the church -- or allow anyone else to. And now there would be a PBS special on Pope John Paul II and his papacy. I found myself sitting down to watch the program with more curiosity than anticipation.

I was totally unprepared for the wave of emotion that washed over me as I watched the history of Karol Wojtyla unfold.

The picture of the baby sitting on his mother’s lap, flanked by his father and his brother, soon gave way to one of a stolid 8-year-old. I shivered when the reporter said it was at this age that he had lost his beloved mother, and that the news had come to him, not from a family member, but a teacher, who called him from class to tell him.

Suddenly it was not the pontiff I was thinking of. It was of a little boy I had known, who also lost his mother when he was 8.

I was in my kitchen some 20 years ago, turning toward the front door as my 8-year-old son came bolting through.

“Mom!” he said urgently. “Michael’s mother died today.”

Michael was a classmate whose mother had been fighting cancer as long as we had known the family. I am not sure her little boy knew how sick she really was, or if he was prepared to lose her. Perhaps his father had not had the heart to tell him. Did little Karol’s father feel the same way?

Now she had died, and my son was standing by my side. “Did you pray for Michael and his mother in school?” I asked.

He nodded gravely. “Not only that,” he said.

“What else?”

“Well, we sat in a circle and Miss Schroepfer said that we should all think about Michael and how his life would be without his mother. Then she said for us to think about how our lives would be if we lost our mothers.”

“What did you say?”

He was very serious. “Well, at first I thought, who would cook? But then I thought Grandma could cook. And who would wash and sweep? But I knew Daddy could do that.”

I was stirring more slowly now, listening for my place in this precious child’s life. He went on, documenting chore after chore that he apparently thought belonged to Mom.

Then he said, “But who could you tell those things that you can’t tell anyone? Who could you tell if you didn’t have a mom?”

I am sure he was startled by my sudden hug, but he scarcely could have known how he had warmed my heart, and yet how sad I was for Michael and all children who had “no one to tell.”

My attention turned back to the documentary on young Wotjyla, grown now, handsome and athletic. “He was a man’s man,” said a woman who had known him for a long time. On the screen was documented his development as an intellectual, a leader, honing his political skills as he wove a tenuous coexistence for the church and a communist state.

But now I was wondering whom did he talk to? Was there any feminine presence in his life besides Mary, the Virgin Mother, to whom he turned often for comfort and strength?

If not, if no hugs followed childish confidences, or if there was no one to whom they could be given, could that be one reason for Pope John Paul’s absolute intolerance of the idea of women in church leadership roles?

Does he think that developing strengths traditionally seen in the church as masculine would diminish femininity and womanliness? Coming as he does from an austere Eastern European society, could the loss of his own mother be causing him still to overemphasize woman in her role as mother and diminish her as priest and prophet, or make it impossible for him to visualize how those could be combined? Has his personal experience in an environment so dominated by men kept him from knowing that women not only could but should be able to make responsible decisions about themselves, their bodies, their lives and the world?

I still cannot get out of my mind that little 8-year-old figure. And I find myself thinking of what happens to little boys who lose their mothers and then have no one to listen to those things “you can’t tell anyone.” Could one of them have grown up to be the pope?

Janelle Lazzo is a freelance writer living in Roeland Park, Kan. She may be reached at janellelaz@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999