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January 4, 2009

'Testimony' to a great pope's life

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


I recently had the opportunity to go to a private screening of the documentary “Testimony,” based on the recollections of Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary of 39 years: Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwicz (pronounced “Jivish” with a soft “J”). Cardinal Dziwicz came out with a book, “A Life with Karol,” that revealed some little-known facts and episodes of the great pope’s life.

Dziwicz kept a diary on John Paul II, thus the title of the movie, “Testimony.” Karol Wojtyla chose Dziwicz to be his personal secretary in 1966 when Wojtyla was still archbishop of Krakow. No one was a closer or more extensive eyewitness than Dziwicz.

“Testimony,” narrated by Michael York, is the project of a Polish Knight of Malta who is ambassador of the Knights to Cuba. He collected 30 hours of interviews with Dziwicz, and 100 hours of footage of John Paul, much of it never before seen by the general public. The film’s premier occurred at the Vatican with Pope Benedict during the recent World Synod of Bishops.

Pope Benedict, who was secretary of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, said: “This is the best movie about the humanity and sanctity of John Paul II.”

What makes this documentary different from other fine documentaries on “the people’s pope”? First of all, the rare footage. You will see John Paul II made a cardinal, on his way to Vatican II, at Vatican II. You will see the hushed-up second attempt on his life in Fatima (yes, it’s on film). You will see a whimsical event when a large, seated statue of a Polish Madonna is being crowned. she tips and her scepter falls. Guess who catches it? The priests who were present joked to then- Cardinal Wojtyla: “See, Mary is sharing her power with you!”

Did you know that he liked coffee and sweets? That, when pope, he sang a different Christmas carol every night after supper until Feb. 2? Did you know that he forgave his would-be assassin even in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? Are you sufficiently enticed?

Secondly, this documentary is deeply personal. It is John Paul II through the eyes of Cardinal Dziwicz, what he has chosen to highlight from the beginning of Karol’s life till the end. For example, the theology of the body is not even mentioned, and neither are most of his encyclicals. But John Paul II’s need to be in the mountains was stressed, as was his relationship with his native Poland and struggle with communism is also stressed. An encounter with a possessed woman is reenacted. (The reenactments — often woven with bits of real footage and stills — are masterful.)

Needless to say, I cried my eyes out during most of the film, but they were joyful tears. We can still enjoy our beloved Holy Father’s beautiful face and perpetual smile through the art and science of film.

“Testimony” will be aired on EWTN (and the DVD will be available exclusively from EWTN until Easter when it will be in general release). For information, visit