Who writes the pope's speeches and sermons?

The most critical documents, like his encyclicals and certain lectures, come from his own hand, says the National Catholic Reporter's man at the Vatican Peter Hebblethwaite.

But the great majority of the words of papal wisdom come from the pens of a group of Polish former compatriots of the pope, and are translated from Polish into Italian and then, after final polishing, into whatever language he will use in addressing a particular audience, Hebblethwaite asserts.

"The starting point is always John Paul's list of engagements," Hebblethwaite writes in the Nov. 28 issue of the Reporter. "His [engagement calendar] determines whether there will be a speech, and the importance of the event determines its approximate length and the degree of papal involvement."

Various of the Vatican departments but especially the Secretariat of State, may be called on to supply background material and ideas for the speech-drafting process, Hebblethwaite says.

"The consultation circles can broaden," he continues. "Nuncios or apostolic delegates may be brought in. Guests at meals might be invited to contribute their ideas. Or relatively junior members of the Curia, believed competent in some field, are summoned by phone," a process which the writer says "goes against the curial tradition of dealing with the pope only through the perfect or president of one's department."

The next step for a major address, according to Hebblethwaite, is for the pope himself to "jot down a few phrases and an outline of what he wants to say." This goes to his ghost-writing team of Poles to produce a first draft.

Hebblethwaite explains that John Paul needs Polish writers because he "prefers to write and think in Polish." The "principal permanent members" of the writing team, he says, include Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's private secretary from Krakow days; Msgr. Jozef Kowalczyk, head of the Polish desk at the Vatican Secretariat of State, and Msgr. Juliusz a Paetz, a clergyman from Poznan who is a member of the papal household. In addition, Hebblethwaite says, men are brought in from Poland on a more or less regular basis.

The views of those who work on the speeches "converge remarkably," Hebblethwaite says. "They share John Paul's analysis of the state of the church and its needs, and they can write almost instinctively in his style."

From the drafters, the text goes to "a group of sisters of Polish origin who have been in Rome for years" who translate the material into Italian, Hebblethwaite says.