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Interview with Pope St. John Paul II's childhood friend, Eugeniusz Mróz

by Monika Jablonska

Descriptive Title

Interview Pope with St. John Paul II's childhood friend, Eugeniusz Mróz

Description

An interview with Eugeniusz Mróz, who lived in Wadowice in the same tenement house as Wojtyła’s family. He attended high school with Karol Wojtyła. The two remained friends for 70 years.

Larger Work

A Pope for All Seasons: Testimonies Inspired by Saint John Paul II

Pages

199-204

Publisher & Date

Angelico Press, 2023

Eugeniusz Mróz lived in Wadowice in the same tenement house as Wojtyła’s family. He attended high school with Karol Wojtyła. The two remained friends for 70 years.

Please tell us about the Wojtyła household.

From the front porch, you entered the kitchen, where you could find a cupboard and a wood- and coal-burning stove. From there, you entered into a small room and then into a large room. So it was a one-bedroom apartment. The floors were made out of wooden planks, and the apartment was filled with books, devotional art, and family photos. In the place of honor was a photo of Wojtyła senior in a military uniform. At the entrance to the kitchen, there was a small porcelain font with holy water. The Wojtyłas always made the sign of the cross when leaving or returning to the apartment.

You were a classmate of the future pope . . .

I was also Karol’s classmate from the fifth grade until our baccalaureate and high school final exams in May 1938. Karol — we called him Lolek — grew up in holiness from early childhood. He received a proper upbringing from his parents. They began and ended each day with a family prayer. They prayed before and after every meal. Lolek’s father, Karol Senior, a retired military officer, read from the Bible each evening. Lolek’s mother, Emilia, was in poor health and did not work outside, but took care of the household. Lolek served as an altar boy. The Wojtyła family was characterized by deep, authentic faith.

What was Karol Wojtyła’s relationship with his father like?

Father and son were inseparable friends. At the time of the death of his mother, Emilia Wojtyłowa, Karol was nine years old. From then on, Karol’s father took care of his son and the household. He really took the place of his son’s mother: he was a caring protector, a wonderful educator, and a faithful companion for walks and vacations. They agreed on most everything and understood each other perfectly. However, the father, with his full dedication and care, did not pamper his son but required order from him, and instilled in him a sense of duty and orderly intellectual habits. I believe that his father played a huge role in shaping the righteous character of Lolek, his great personality, strong moral sense, and academic achievements. That man gave his son all his strength. The attitude of this modest and brave father was a model of nobility and duty, a role model for us — his son’s friends.

When I visited them in the neighborhood, I often found Karol’s father busy with household chores. He cleaned the apartment himself, did the laundry, altered his uniforms into pants, and cooked. The Wojtyłas ate breakfast and supper at home, while they went out for lunch to the diner run by Maria and Alojzy Banaś, across the street from their building. Their favorite dishes were sour rye soup with sausage and potatoes, Ruthenian dumplings, and cheesecake. They also liked tripe soup, a typical Wadowice dish. They started their day singing these words: “Let our lips praise the Holy Virgin,/ heralding her incomprehensible glory,” or another song, “When the auroras dawn in the morning.” Lolek had a wonderful voice, powerful and resonant, just like his father.

Did you spend a lot of time with Karol Wojtyła?

Sometimes we did our homework together, with other friends. Karol would leave us for a few minutes and go to pray in a small room where there was a statue of the Mother of God, a kind of home altar, with a kneeler in front of the image. Right after his prayers, Lolek would return to finish his homework. After school, we usually played soccer; we swam in the waters of the Skawa River on warm days, and played ping-pong during winter. I saw the father and son almost every day taking walks, and sometimes I even joined them, proceeding towards the bridge on the Skawa River, or to the park in Zaskawa.

What kind of a student was Karol Wojtyła?

He impressed us with his simplicity, directness, and great joy of life, despite the fact that his childhood was overshadowed by orphanhood. He was a top student throughout high school. We felt great nobility emanating from him, warmth imbued with the charisma of deep and authentic religious devotion, a sensitivity to poverty and the suffering of others. He was always a cordial, cheerful friend, who rushed to help us with homework. We shared Lolek’s passions for theater, travel, and sports.

He distinguished himself in high school with great erudition, broad interests, and a phenomenal memory. His main focus was on the humanities. Karol stood out among us with a great intellect and a strong, noble personality. He was always very well prepared for each lesson and exam. However, he was not a teacher’s pet, always cramming away. In fact, because of his great abilities, he did not have to spend much time studying. Yet he read a lot. He ensconced himself in challenging books, well beyond his age: the classics, as well as Polish and foreign poets. In the seventh and eighth grades, he read German poets and philosophers in their own language: Schiller, Goethe, Kant, and Schopenhauer. He gave brilliant dramatic recitals of the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer and excerpts from the works of Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Ovid. We couldn’t keep up with him, for he made giant steps of spirit, heart, and mind.

What about Karol Wojtyła and sports?

Indeed, Karol was fond of sports. Soccer played an important role in his life. We played wherever we could. In winter, we played hockey and went sledding and skiing. His father taught him to swim, and Karol junior swam perfectly. Together with Lolek’s father, we hiked in the Beskid, Gorce, Pieniny, and Tatra Mountains. We loved the Tatras above all others, so we visited them often. It seemed very natural that after John Paul II rode up in a ski lift to the Kasprowy Wierch in 1997 he listed from memory the names of the Tatra peaks one by one from the observation deck.

Wojtyła was also a great actor. How did his theatrical adventures start?

We had our own theater in the high school; it was established in 1935. We mainly performed plays from the classical [Polish] repertoire: Słowacki, Fredro, and Wyspiański. Wojtyła later became fascinated by the poetry of Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Karol played leading roles in all these plays. He had perfect diction, gracefulness, a sonorous voice, and total identification with the character. He was interested in theater not only from the practical but also from the theoretical side.

As a high school student, Lolek met Mieczysław Kotlarczyk. He taught Lolek about the power of art to shape society and develop it spiritually and morally. He also presented the actor as a “priest of art” responsible for the fate of the nation. Lolek played in productions directed by Kotlarczyk. Everyone predicted a splendid career for him. He thought of acting as his way of life, and therefore he chose to go to college.

What were Karol Wojtyła’s relationships with women like?

I never saw Karol on a date with a girl. He respected women very much, but he viewed them platonically, as friends. He treated them with great kindness and courtesy, like a real gentleman. He was not afraid of girls. He did not avoid them, but he did not seek any deeper intimate involvement.

Please reflect on the high school reunions you attended with Karol Wojtyła.

Our first high school reunion took place in July 1948 in Wadowice. Lolek had just returned from his studies in Rome and joined us. I think we postponed the event for him. It was our first meeting with Karol Wojtyła as a clergyman and we felt a bit intimidated by this, but he was very direct with us so we also treated him as before, during our school years. We met again in Wadowice on September 14, 1958, where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our final exam. As a bishop and later as a cardinal, he invited us to his place in Krakow. He hosted us in the archepiscopal palace in Kraków. We met on several occasions later as well. We were planning the 40th anniversary of our high school graduation in December 1978 in Kraków. Karol invited us to come with our wives; all our reunions so far had been attended by men only. However, in October of that year, he went to Rome for the conclave and remained there as pope. So he missed the 40th reunion.

Under what circumstances did you find out that Karol Wojtyła had become pope?

I was at my son’s house on October 16, 1978, in the afternoon. I was working in the garden and listening to the radio. And then I heard the news that the conclave had elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as pope! Tears came to my eyes. I stopped working and went home to share this amazing piece of news with my family. And Wojtyła did not forget about his high school friends from Wadowice as pope. He wrote to us, visited us in Wadowice, and brought us to Rome, the Vatican, and Castel Gandolfo.

When was your first meeting with Karol Wojtyła as pope?

During his first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. We met with a group of friends in Wadowice. We were a bit stressed, but Karol was very direct and everything turned out normal, as during our school times. We gave him a bouquet of white and red roses. He hugged each of us — we cried, and tears flashed in his eyes too. He invited us to his new rectory in the Vatican. He said: “Come to me; I shall provide you with food and accommodation.” Then he added: “Boys, we are getting old.” And we visited him in the Vatican and at Castel Gandolfo. During all the pilgrimages of John Paul II to his native country, despite his very busy schedule, he always found time for us, his friends from Wadowice.

I remember our 50th anniversary reunion in 1988. For that occasion, the Holy Father invited us to the Vatican. As during our previous meetings, we reminisced about our teachers, sang songs, and recited Homer’s Iliad. In August and September 1994, we spent pleasant moments with friends in Castel Gandolfo. The first Mass celebrated by our classmate in the chapel there acquired a special dimension for us. The words of his homily impressed me deeply:

My dear friends, high school classmates from Wadowice! We meet again 56 years after graduation. Thank you joining me here at the Castel Gandolfo chapel. This chapel has a special meaning for us Poles. It was established by Pius IX, who during the Polish-Bolshevik War’s Miracle on the Vistula had served as the papal nuncio in Warsaw and loved Poland very much. The decor of this chapel tells us about it. There is a painting showing the defense of Warsaw on one wall. A young priest, Fr. Ignacy Skorupka, with a cross in his hand, leads the host of defenders and encourages them to fight the enemy. That happened near Warsaw in 1920. It is also the year of our birth, the year when our life began. The history of independent Poland began with this generation. Our childhood and adolescence passed in it. Today’s reading calls us to be grateful. Various gifts have come to us from God, from parents, and from educators.

Our meeting is also about gratitude. The character of this chapel, which refers to the events of 1920, obligates me to remember and be grateful. Here, we should also mention those who paid the debt of gratitude with the sacrifice of their lives. Among them were those who took part in the Warsaw Uprising about 50 years ago. . . . This chapel tells us that our human life is related to the work of salvation. This is the most beautiful gift a person can receive. God’s Son is the basis of our salvation. We all participate in it, including the students from the Wadowice high school and those whom we remember. Among them, there was Prince [Cardinal] Adam Sapieha, who visited the high school in Wadowice just before our graduation. Today I recall all this, an entire stage of our life, its events, the people who went before us to meet the Lord, so we also may gaze at his face and find each other in eternity. Thank you, dear friends, for your presence here, so that we can pray together for our parents and our deceased friends and classmates, and that our paths may cross again at the Father’s house.

Do you remember your last meeting with John Paul II?

It was on August 18, 2002, at the archepiscopal palace in Kraków. The pope was already in a wheelchair. We did not sing our favorite scout songs as before, and I did not play the harmonica. We realized, with a great sadness, that our friend Lolek — John Paul II, the Pope of Hope — was slowly passing into eternity.

Did you participate in the funeral of John Paul II?

On the day of the funeral, I went to the sanctuary on Mount St. Anna, where I lit a candle and placed flowers at the monument of John Paul II. I sang the Pater noster. As in old times, I played the harmonica and sang a verse that I composed especially for him: “Pray, John Paul, for the well-being of the world. May your intercession bring all people together. Let us sing and play for him all the way from the Vistula River to the Vatican.” That was my farewell.

This item 12735 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org