By Tim Townsend
Of the Post-Dispatch
ROME - Archbishop Szczepan Wesoly began working with Karol Wojtyla in the early 1960s, when Wojtyla was often in Rome for meetings of the Vatican Council II and Wesoly worked as a press official for the Vatican's ecumenical office. The two men would run into each other at the Collegio Polacco, or Polish College, founded in the 19th century to train Polish priests.
Two years after Wojtyla was appointed cardinal of Krakow in 1967, Wesoly accompanied him on a tour of Polish parishes in the United States, including a trip to St. Louis and to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish.
Even though the two men knew each other and worked together for more than 40 years, Wesoly is hesitant to use the word "friend" to define his relationship with John Paul II.
"I knew him very well, and he knew me very well," said Wesoly, 78, in an interview Wednesday at his residence next to the Polish church of St. Stanislaw. "To say 'friend,' that has too much emotions."
Nevertheless, the pope had enough confidence in Wesoly to appoint him to two important positions. Until 18 months ago, he was archbishop to all Polish people outside Poland's borders. Bishops must put in their requests to retire at age 75, according to church law, but the pontiff extended Wesoly's duties for two years after his 75th birthday.
Wesoly is also the president of the John Paul II Foundation, an institution the pope set up in 1981 to promote science and culture and its relationship to faith, especially among people in Eastern Europe.
Wesoly said the foundation raised money to provide scholarships for young Poles and people "east of Poland's eastern border" to study abroad with the proviso that they return home to use what they have learned.
In a speech on the 20th anniversary of the foundation in 2001, John Paul drew a parallel between the work of the Roman poet Horace and the work of Wesoly and the foundation. In an epilogue to his "Odes," published a generation before the birth of Christ, Horace said of his own poetry: "Exegi monumentum aere perennius," or "I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze."
"If the foundation, after 20 years of activity, can say 'exegi monumentum,'" said John Paul in his speech, "it is precisely with a view to shaping a spiritual monument in the hearts and minds of people, of environments and of whole societies, continually, and without noise. There is no monument of our time more magnificent and enduring than this one, forged in the bronze of science and culture."
The foundation, which has a sister organization in the United States called the Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation, will preserve all of the pope's papers for future scholars and promote John Paul's teachings.
Wesoly, dressed in a long, black cassock and wearing thick glasses, sat on a sofa under paintings of Polish bishops. He is a shy, quiet man, averse to media attention, though seemingly resigned to it. His answers to questions are intelligent and serious, though he flashes an occasional smile and can belt out a big laugh.
At the request of some St. Stanislaus Kostka parishioners, Wesoly recently, and secretly, engaged in the debate between St. Stanislaus and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. Burke is at odds with the parish over the control of church finances, which for more than a century have been managed by a lay board. The archdiocese contends St. Stanislaus' structure as a nonprofit group run by a lay board is contrary to church law, and for the last year has renewed its efforts to force the board to conform to a traditional parish structure. Wesoly sent a letter to the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, via Archbishop Wilton Gregory, asking someone at the conference to try to mediate the dispute.
"I am sorry for what is happening to the Polish church in St. Louis," he said. "I'm trying to get people in Washington to help."
Wesoly is in favor of a compromise in the dispute. He thinks both the lay board of directors and Burke need to give something to gain something.
"The board says one thing and the archbishop says another," he said. "They need to sit down and begin a serious dialogue."
Wesoly said he believes the atmosphere of widespread church closings in the United States has contributed to the fear St. Stanislaus parishioners have that Burke simply wants to close their church.
He acknowledged that Burke had promised not to close St. Stanislaus, but said the current atmosphere of distrust that parishioners have for U.S. bishops because of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis has contributed to the St. Stanislaus situation.
He mentioned a message John Paul gave to a group of U.S. bishops visiting Rome in 2004.
"He told the bishops they had to have the confidence of the people," Wesoly said.
He also said Burke's decision to issue the penalty of interdict against the six members of the St. Stanislaus board, "while canonically correct and right" was "spiritually and emotionally not the right thing to do."
But in the last week, Wesoly's thoughts have been with John Paul.
"He had a big personality," Wesoly said. "He was an intellectual - he always was."
Wesoly, who will assist in the pope's funeral on Friday, said the pope suffered much, especially in the last three months of his life. But he said the number of people who have come to pay their final respects to the pontiff suggests how much he touched people during his papacy.
"The pope, during his pontificate, wanted always to be close to the people," he said. "And when he died, all these people wanted to be close to him."
Reporter Tim Townsend
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