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How the Church Has Changed the World: Be Not Afraid


"I won't, I won't!" cried the woman, writhing in the agony of nightmare. 

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PółtawskaWanda Półtawska

Her husband shook her gently.

"Wanda," he said, as she opened her eyes and began to recognize where she was.  It was her home.  There stood a crucifix upon the wall.  Her rosary was on her nightstand.

"Oh, Andrzej!" she said, weeping.  "The dreams — will I ever be free of them?"

"In God's good time," he said.  He didn't want to suggest more.  He was a philosopher, and she was the psychiatrist.

"I shall write them down," she said.

But no dream could be as terrible as the reality had been.  She and her friend, a girl named Krysia, had drawn together in a friendship of suffering and faith.  They had promised each other not to become like brute beasts, just because they were starving.  They didn't blame the other girls and women.  All our own virtues are God's gifts to us.

The place was Ravensbrück, a concentration camp.  Wanda had been arrested for passing messages to the Polish resistance against the Nazis.  What the guards did to women there in return for an extra scrap of fat or brown bread, we needn't guess.  Wanda and Krysia kept themselves from it.  But the godless intellectuals were worse than the guards, and from them they had no recourse.

She earned her doctorate in psychiatry, and ministered especially to survivors of the camps, and to children who had been abused.

"Be still," the doctor growled, "or it will only hurt worse."  The long needle pierced her flesh and muscle and penetrated the bone.  Slowly, with detached and clinical precision, he injected bacteria into Wanda's marrow.  And on he went to the next human experiment.  The Nazis were scientists, after all.  They wanted to see what would happen to the bacteria under certain conditions.

They caused open wounds and then injected them with pus, causing the women agonies of fever and pain, often ending in a horrible death.  Wanda too had died after four years at Ravensbrück.  Or so the woman doctor thought when she looked at her motionless body.  "Number 7709," she said.  "Throw her on the pile."

That was where she lay, in a heap of corpses, when Krysia saw her fingers twitch.  That saved her life.  It was 1945, and she was twenty-four years old.

The good bishop

Wanda Półtawska vowed to God that if she survived, she would become a doctor, a healer.  She earned her doctorate in psychiatry, and ministered especially to survivors of the camps, and to children who had been abused.  At this time she and her husband became close friends with a young bishop in Kraków, named Karol Wojtyła.

Imagine in your mind's eye the athletic bishop, surrounded by young people, both men and women, on one of his outings into the country, hiking, skiing, and rowing.  He urges them to embark upon the true adventure of love, and for most of them that will be made manifest in marriage.  The Półtawskas are there too.  Their conversations help him to sharpen his views on what he will later call the theology of the body.

"To such a request one must not say no," said Padre Pio.

For the body, male and female, has meaning.  It is not inert stuff to be experimented upon, even when you yourself are the experimenter.  If you violate that meaning, you violate yourself.  It would be like amputating a healthy limb — or like injecting disease into healthy tissue.  Dr. Półtawska had learned by experience what man can sink to when he loses the sense that his body is meant for holiness.  Man — woman — is no mere thing for man's use.  Young people can be called to heroism and holiness, or else they will sink to hedonism.  There is no real third choice.

When Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae vitae (1968), affirming what the Church had taught for two thousand years, the thought of Bishop Wojtyła was there, and also the thought of the woman who had seen where a fundamental materialism must lead.  When all the world had given way, one institution, the Church, stood against the flood.

The Calabrian priest and the French doctor

But Doctor Półtawska would not have survived to advise the bishop were it not for a remarkable priest in the mountains of poor and dusty Calabria.

It is 1962.  He has been handed a message: "Venerable Father," it begins, and begs him to pray for a mother of four girls, a survivor of the camps, now stricken with cancer and in danger of her life, "that God may extend his mercy to this woman and her family in the presence of the Most Blessed Virgin."  It is signed, "Most obligated in Christ, Karol Wojtyła."

"To such a request one must not say no," said Padre Pio.

pio4324Saint Padre Pio 

When the surgeons went to remove the cancer in her throat, it was gone, simply gone.  It had been devoured by grace.  Dr. Półtawska went to Pietrelcina to find out for herself what had happened.  She had never met Padre Pio before.  When she arrived he was in the chapel saying Mass.  She entered, and he paused, looking upon her as if to say, "It was for you I prayed."

This was one of the miracles that led to Padre Pio's canonization.

Dr. Półtawska knew from the camps that a human life cannot be placed in the balance with any other good upon earth.  Doctors therefore must be in the business of life, not death.  We must choose.  We cannot avoid the choice.  After the war, she wrote, "a group of doctors [were] condemned to death for crimes against humanity, because of euthanasia and experimentation on humans.  Another group of doctors created a hospital within the Warsaw Ghetto and when the Ghetto was closed all the patients died of starvation.  The doctors remained with their patients and died with them.  The two groups of doctors had been colleagues before the war."

She delivered those words in 2004, at the ten-year anniversary for the Association of Friends of Professor Jérôme Lejeune, the doctor who had discovered the chromosome that causes Down syndrome, and who had fought manfully for those children and their right to live.  Dr. Półtawska, Dr. Lejeune, and the bishop, now Pope John Paul II, formed a powerful troika for life.  She recalled going to Lejeune's workshop in France, and finding there the humblest things, "broken bits and pieces for mending dolls, and watering cans, and an old iron.  For him," she said, "everything, no matter how useless, was an object of beauty."  How much more than dolls, then, are human lives!

In the midst of life

It is May 13, 1981.  Pope John Paul II has just announced the founding of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, with Dr. Lejeune as its president, and Dr. Półtawska on the governing board.  He has lunch with Lejeune and his wife, who return to Paris that day.  A few hours later, a Turkish gunman, put up to it by the Soviets, shoots and nearly kills the pope.  That same night, Jérôme Lejeune lies ill in a hospital in Paris.

Man — woman — is no mere thing for man's use  Young people can be called to heroism and holiness, or else they will sink to hedonism.  There is no real third choice.

The pope, entrusting himself to Our Lady of Fatima, survives, and lives to see the end of the Soviets and their Polish puppets.  Man's history lies not in some impersonal historical force, but in the providence of God.  Someone should have told the Soviets that.  Dr. Lejeune survives.  The Institute continues.

So does the Pontifical Academy for Life, also dear to the pope's heart.  It was founded in 1994, on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  John Paul had intended that Jérôme Lejeune be its president too, but on April 3, Dr. Lejeune passed away suddenly.  Wanda Półtawska was having breakfast with the pope when the news was brought to him.

Sometimes it seems as if the history of the Church is a series of hair's-breadth escapes, of a man clinging by a branch to the side of a cliff, or grabbing hold of a spar as the ship he had been on goes down to the bottom of the sea.  Life in Christ may be filled with joy or suffering or both, but one thing it never is, and that is dull.  Nor are the persons in the Church's drama: the diminutive woman doctor who healed the nightmares of others; the cheerful Frenchman and his care for the least among us; the Polish patriot who became pope and braved a secular world to his right and his left; a quiet monk in the crossroads to nowhere.

Death is all around us, but we are in the midst of life.

One more thing about Dr. Półtawska.  She is still with us on earth, as I write these words. I can't go on social media to find Thomas Aquinas or even Jérôme Lejeune, but I have found Wanda Półtawska.  Her face is that of an old Polish grandma, her eyes crinkled with many years of kindliness.  I see a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament.  She writes, in Polish, about how good it is to go every day to be in the presence of the Lord God in the tabernacle, and to talk to him.  He answers, she says, not with a shout, but in silence.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Be Not Afraid." Magnificat (May, 2020).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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