How Pope John Paul II asked me to edit a book

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
Church, Topics 02
Reproduced with Permission

When Pope John Paul II - may he now enjoy heaven - decided to make natural family planning a major topic for the October 1980 Synod of Bishops, my name came to his attention. That led to my great privilege of meeting him and working with him to produce a book for that Synod whose topic was the family. He intended that the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops attending the 1980 Synod should learn about the natural methods of family planning - temperature shift, mucus changes and all that - and so become motivated to make nfp into an important part of their apostolic activities. Word should go forth from the Synod to the Catholic world around the globe.

The pope knew, of course, that the Pill and other methods of contraception had become the fashion world-wide. Natural family planning was being pooh-poohed and neglected like another Orphan Annie. Yet he expected confidently that the 1980 Synod would hold to the teachings of the Church. He himself was thoroughly familiar with nfp methods.

At one of the meetings of the Pope with contributors to the book, Dr. Joseph Roetzer spoke up and assured him that we who teach the natural methods find that couples can learn them and can live normal and happy lives while using them. The Pope nodded. He knew that already from his own experience in Poland, where he had organized the teaching of nfp nation-wide and had made this to be an obligatory part of marriage preparation. Then he gave this remarkable response to Dr. Roetzer and the rest of us who were in attendance.

There had been overwhelming expectations in the past, said the Pope, that when the Synod of Bishops would meet in Rome to discuss about clerical celibacy, they would vote to do away with it. Just the opposite happened. When the Synod met, they voted to keep the practice. By that he meant to imply that the 1980 Synod would also hold to the teaching of the Church that contraception is wrong. Subsequent events proved that he was right.

The members of the Synod would re-affirm the teachings of Humanae Vitae which ban contraception (see the decision in the document Familiaris Consortio number 29). They also asked that knowledge about the biological basis on which nfp is based be taught in the future as a part of common human education. Every effort must be made, states Familiaris Consortio No. 33, to make knowledge about the rhythms of fertility accessible to all married couples and to young adults before marriage. In other words, the basics of nfp must be made a part of the normal education of all. The Pope was happy with that result of the Synod, of course.

On divorced and remarried Catholics

Getting ahead of my main theme, I recall this remarkable sidelight of the Synod. Msgr. Carlo Caffarra was one of those who briefed journalists in the evenings about the Synod proceedings of the past day. He was also one of the theologians whom Tomko had selected to contribute to our book - firm and orthodox. He knew me and my positions well. One evening, after he had finished briefing journalists, he collared me, aghast at what he had just reported to journalists. "How could he?" he said in distress and amazement. What had happened was that Archbishop Shirayanagi of Tokyo had told the Synod that some Catholics who divorce and re-marry, ought to be admitted to Holy Communion. "How could he do that?" he repeated in disbelief, half way blaming me because I live in Japan, though he knew that I did not hold the error. I write this now, not only because it is public knowledge, but even more, because it is a view that is still shared by many in Japan (and elsewhere) that needs to be corrected. As it turned out the Synod rejected this because it would compromise the permanence of sacramental marriage (see FC No. 84).

And more. The Pope summarized the teachings of the Synod in the Sistine Chapel after the Synod had done its work. I sat in a rear row, and in front of me was a group of young priests. When the Pope came to the point that divorced and remarried Catholics were still welcome as members of the Church, but are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion he explained why: It is "from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist" (FC 84). When he said this several of the young priests in front of me jumped to their feet and shook their heads in disbelief. It was clearly beyond their comprehension, as they had expected otherwise.

And more. A draft of a Japanese Catechism proposed that divorced and remarried Catholics can be admitted to the Eucharist. The opinion was quite common in Japan. But it was not acceptable in the Vatican. I assume that the Vatican did not give its recognition to the draft of the proposed Japanese Catechism until the proposed novelty was corrected. As I write this (April 10, 2005) Cardinal Shirayanagi, age 77, is in Rome to elect a new Pope, or even to be elected. Might the doctrine be changed when a new pope is in power? DonÕt bet on it. It wonÕt happen, at least not until "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken" (Matt, 24:29). Now back to our theme.

Tagged by the Pope to edit book

How did it come about that I would be called to Rome to work on a book on natural family planning? The Pope had planned to present a book on nfp to the coming Synod of Bishops. I got a telephone call in Tokyo (was it on a Wednesday, I forget) that Archbishop Tomko, Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, wants Fr. Paul Marx and myself to meet him on the following Monday morning at 9:00 A.M. in his office in the Vatican.

Wow, I was thrilled. Called to the Vatican!, Soon I was on a plane, and then in TomkoÕs office with Fr. Marx. From him we learned about the PopeÕs plans. Being present in TomkoÕs office was in itself a joy that was quite extraordinary. What I experienced was a kind of ethereal perception of a Presence, perhaps an emanation of the sweetness of the odor of the presence of Christ. This experience, here and elsewhere in the Vatican, remains in my memory to this day. Perhaps the great crowds of people that visit the Vatican today feel some of that ineffable joy which helps them to appreciate the great gift of Christ to the world: a pope who is His Vicar on earth.

Tomko was quick and practical. The book should have three sections: 1) Practical experience of those who teach and those who practice natural family planning. 2) The science of nfp. 3) Theology. He would contact and encourage contributors. Would we do the work of editing and production?

Our Family Life Association in Tokyo had the people to do that provided the De Rance Foundation, headed by Harry John, would do the financing. He and Erica and the board members approved. I then became editor in chief. Fr. Marx would tag more contributors, and distribute the book later to 90,000 parishes and religious organizations around the globe. One of the recipients later showed me his copy: worn to tatters from constant use.

In April of 1980 about twenty contributors met in Rome in the office of the De Rance foundation, where we reviewed the contributions under the eyes of Archbishop Tomko. He then arranged for an interim report to the Holy Father. It was at that audience that Dr. Roetzer summed up the findings: Experience and science indicate that nfp is possible for families, a normal way of life. I handed to the Pope a packet of xeroxed copies of our work done so far. He eyed the packet, two inches thick, and said ruefully: "Must I go through all that?" Still I was so happy with our work that I asked him to give it a quick look. The theology part was not yet in and was added during the summer.

I could type fast in those days. There were a few disputes about contents which occasioned a trip to Rome to consult with Msgr. Tettamanzi, now a Cardinal and a papabile, another to the De Rance Foundation in Milwaukee. Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop on New York, then wrote a foreword to satisfy scruples of some that nfp is not just another manner of contraception. Soon our office manager in Tokyo, Mr. Saito, brought the book to a printer for a rush job, and Mr. Suga, assistant, air-freighted copies to Archbishop Tomko in time for the Synod in October.

Audience October 9, 1980

Not being either a Member of the Synod nor official Auditor, could I still find a way to attend sessions? I asked the secretary of Archbishop Tomko about that. He said to tell the Swiss guard that I had permission from him. That worked. I sat in an upper tier where Mother Teresa also sat, and made good contacts with her. That eventually opened the way for her visits to Japan in 1981 and 1982. But that is another story.

The Pope attended every session and paid close attention to the speeches.

He would later provide the world with what he heard and wanted to say in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. He distributed our book titled: Natural Family Planning, NatureÕs Way - GodÕs Way to all the Synod attendants. On one of the days contributors to that book explained the natural methods, including details about mucus changes and the post-ovulation temperature rise. The Pope sat through it all, but likely he already knew that and more.

Then on October 9th, 1980, the Pope invited those who had helped produce the book to a special audience. As presenter, I stood next to Archbishop Tomko; next were Cardinal Cooke, Mr. John, and down the line a bit, Mother Teresa. The Pope strode in - that was before the assassination attempt - and when he saw so many familiar friends of nfp there, about thirty, he said : "I should be the one who confirms the brethren, but thank you for confirming me."

When he saw me he asked: "Are you still in Japan?" When I said YES he was glad and said: "I pray for you." Apparently he had heard from Archbishop Tomko that my stay in Japan was being contested. I like to think that it was his prayers that blocked efforts to have me ousted from Japan when there was a change of superiors. May he remember me now in heaven.

Mrs. Takako Honma, President of our Japan Family Life Association, was also in attendance. After my presentation and the PopeÕs response, I quickly introduced Mother Teresa to Mrs. Honma, gracious matriarch clad in a splendid silk kimono. Mrs. Honma invited Mother to come to Japan in the coming month of April, 1981, to oppose abortions and promote natural family planning. The earnestness of her face and voice did its work. I had tried to invite Mother to come to Japan during many conversations, but had received no firm commitment. I translated for Mrs. Honma. Thanks be to God, and to the persuasive powers of Mrs. Honma, Mother Teresa consented to her earnest request then and there! That was a truly historic moment for us and for all Japan. When she came, all Japan listened to her lilting voice. God loves you, she said over and over again. He has written your name in the palm of His hand. Be holy, pray, change the adoption law, stop doing abortions, wait for sex until marriage, use no contraceptives to spoil the holiness of marriage, and the young should learn nfp. Japan has actually done much to follow her advice.

After the formalities, the Pope went around to shake hands with each and all and gave us joy and encouragement. What a gracious and great Pope! May the Lord reward him richly in heaven. Such is my memory of a great event in my life.