SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
If you lived on Clifton Street in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1973, you might have seen a group of priests walking in and out of one of the houses there. Because members of the clergy were a common sight, you might not have given them a second glance.
But less than six years later, one of them, a man with a receding hairline and greying locks, became Pope John Paul II. The first Polish Pope and the first non-Italian Pope in five centuries, he was eventually beatified in 2011 by his successor, the late Pope Benedict, and canonised in 2014 by Pope Francis.
Then known as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he had travelled to Melbourne for the Eucharistic Congress and ordination of Wieslaw Slowik SJ and Leonard Kiesch SJ half a century ago.
Fr Slowik recalls the details with a twinkle in his eye. “We wrote to Cardinal Wojtyla, whom I knew from my time in Poland, because he used to come to our chapel for Jesuit students. Just before that, he had already turned down a couple of rather significant invitations because of his workload at the time. But his private secretary later told us that when our letter arrived, asking him to ordain two Polish Jesuits, he viewed that as something really important, even though he wasn’t a Jesuit himself. He was like that.
“So he came and stayed with us in our Richmond house, sharing everything with us – even the bathroom. We were very pleased, very honoured to have him in our midst. He was one of many priests here, because many Polish priests had arrived from all over. There were probably about 20 priests in the house, many of whom had to sleep on the floor before the ordination. No, the Cardinal didn’t sleep on the floor. We gave him his own room, which later became known as the Pope’s room!
“The ordination was held on Sunday 25 February 1973 and the blessing of the Polish Church in Essendon took place the day before. Our ordination was an incredible experience. My father had died in Poland a couple of months earlier, on 31 December 1972. He suffered a heart attack and obviously I wasn’t able to go back for his funeral because travel was very difficult in those times. But a few days before my father passed away, he travelled to Krakow to meet Cardinal Wojtyla. He gave him a letter and a gift for me and asked him to pass them on to me when he arrived in Melbourne. My father, Joe, had no idea that he was talking to a future Pope.
“The Cardinal only found out about my father’s passing when he arrived in Australia. On the day of the ordination, he gave me a big hug and said, ‘I know exactly how you feel because my own father died just before my ordination as well. If you don’t mind, I would be honoured to replace your father.’ That was a very moving experience. I said I would be honoured, and then we walked down the street together to St Ignatius’ Church. The ordination was a very uplifting and inspiring experience for me.
“A few weeks ago, I discovered a wonderful souvenir of the day – a little audio cassette with the original recording of Cardinal Wojtyla’s message on it. The whole ordination was in Polish and of course he spoke in Polish and preached for about 35 minutes, which is fairly long by Australian standards! I was amazed to listen to the tape recently and discover how deep and powerful his message was. Our non-Polish friends – and there were plenty of them in the church – could not understand what he was saying. At that time there were no booklets or anything and it was probably a bit long for them!
“He spoke about the priesthood and what it’s all about. And he said that it was all about love, about loving. It was very relevant and timeless. For me, it also had an extra layer of relevance because just before the ordination, Fr Janusz had asked me, ‘Do you really want to be a priest?’ He said if I had any doubts or if I didn’t want to be a priest, I had no reason to be scared. He told me that if I had any problems or doubts, he would help me to find a girl and settle down. I appreciated his concern, but I said something along the lines of ‘Oh, come on Father, I came here to be a priest!’ It was not a decision I had taken lightly.
“That’s all part of the Jesuit process of discernment. You have to ask yourself the essential question: are you really going to love those people you are preparing to serve? And then you have to ask yourself: are you prepared to love them as they are rather than what you want them to be? You have to accept people as they are. That was how I arrived at my decision.
“The funny thing is, that’s exactly what Cardinal Wojtyla echoed in his message at our ordination. For the final ten minutes, he urged us to find Christ and share that devotion with people who were closest to us, to preach Christ’s message, to announce His presence. The message was very powerful, and his diction was so precise. As a former actor, all of these aspects of his life come through so strongly in that recording.”
Towards the end of my interview with Fr Tony, his mobile phone rang. The ring tone was melodious birdsong, not one that I’ve ever heard on Australian shores. He didn’t take the call, and I assumed that the ring tone suggested he was probably an amateur ornithologist, or perhaps that the bird reminded him of his homeland. He must have been a mind reader, because he explained immediately why it was significant. “You see, my surname, Slowik, means ‘nightingale’ in Polish. That ring tone is the song of a nightingale.”
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia