The letter, dated May 4, was released May 15 at 11 a.m. local time by the Polish bishops’ press office, which provided an English translation from the original German.
Benedict, who succeeded John Paul II as pope in 2005, said that his predecessor was born at a time of both “oppression” and “great hope.” Poland had regained its independence in 1918, but was still threatened by Germany and Russia.
He recalled that after the Nazis had occupied Poland in 1939, the young Karol Wojtyła had worked in the quarry of a chemical plant while secretly preparing for the priesthood.
“Of course, Karol not only studied theology in books but also through his experience of the difficult situation that he and his country found itself in,” he wrote.
“This is somewhat a characteristic of his whole life and work. He studied books but the questions that they posed became the reality that he profoundly experienced and lived.”
Benedict said that the future pope was also shaped by Vatican II, whose sessions he attended first as an auxiliary bishop and later as the Archbishop of Kraków.
“The Second Vatican Council became the school of his entire life and work,” he observed, highlighting John Paul’s contribution to the Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes.
“The answers developed by the Council would pave the way for his mission as bishop and, later, as pope,” Benedict wrote.
He argued that when John Paul II was elected to the papacy the Church was “in a dramatic situation.”
He wrote: “The deliberations of the Council had been presented to the public as a dispute over the Faith itself, which seemed to deprive the Council of its infallible and unwavering sureness. A Bavarian parish priest, for example, commented on the situation by saying, ‘In the end, we fell into the wrong faith.’”
“This feeling that nothing was no longer certain, that everything was questioned, was kindled even more by the method of implementation of liturgical reform. In the end, it almost seemed that the liturgy could be created of itself.”
Benedict continued: “Paul VI brought the Council to an end with energy and determination, but after its conclusion, he faced ever more pressing problems that ultimately questioned the existence of the Church Herself.”
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“At that time, sociologists compared the Church’s situation to the situation of the Soviet Union under the rule of Gorbachev, during which the powerful structure of the Soviet state collapsed under the process of its reform.”
He said that John Paul II was able to restore the Church’s equilibrium, helped by the fact that the Polish Church had experienced “a joyful renewal” in the wake of Vatican II while struggling against communism.
Through his extensive travels and his 14 encyclicals, the Polish pope shared “a message of joy” and “comprehensively presented the faith of the Church and its teaching in a human way,” Benedict said.
He identified the “true center” of the saint’s life as the Divine Mercy devotion promoted by the Polish nun Faustina Kowalska.
Benedict, who served as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, recalled that his Congregation had twice advised the pope not to establish the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
“It was certainly not easy for the Holy Father to accept our reply,” he recalled. “Yet, he did so with great humility and accepted our negative response a second time. Finally, he formulated a proposal that left the Second Sunday of Easter in its historical form but included Divine Mercy in its original message.”