WARSAW, Poland - To him, she was "My Dear Dusia" and he signed his letters "Br" - short for brother.

She was one of a handful of people by his bedside when he died, and visited him in the hospital when he survived an assassination attempt.

In the cloistered universe of the Vatican, Pope John Paul II had a woman friend with whom he shared spiritual thoughts in a series of letters that spanned the decades. Now she is defending her recent book of correspondence with the pope against criticism from church officials that she "exaggerated" her friendship with the late pontiff and could delay his beatification.

Wanda Poltawska, 87, said her book - a collection of her religious meditations and John Paul's letters of spiritual guidance - was harmless to his saint-making process and she dismissed those who sought to minimize her friendship with the Polish-born John Paul.

"What is wrong in a priest's friendship with a woman? Isn't a priest a human being?" Poltawska said in an interview from her home in Krakow, in southern Poland, where the Rev. Karol Wojtyla was a frequent family guest before being elected pope in 1978.

No one has publicly suggested Poltawska and John Paul had a romantic relationship, and the book makes no such claim. The two, who campaigned together against abortion in Poland under communism, referred to one another as brother and sister, and she often visited the pope with her family in tow.

John Paul's longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, has criticized Poltawska's book, saying she claimed to have had a special relationship with the late pontiff that never existed.

In a recent interview with Italian daily La Stampa, Dziwisz said John Paul had many dear old friends from Poland, and made them all feel like they had a preferential friendship.

Poltawska's photos attest to a friendship that began in the 1950s, when she sought out a priest to give her spiritual guidance to overcome the trauma she suffered during almost four years at the Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbrueck. Wojtyla was that priest.

The 570-page book recalls annual family vacationsin the Beskidy Mountains with Wojtyla before he became pope, trips filled with praying and religious discussions. It includes pictures of her family with the pope at the Vatican and vacationing at the papal holiday residence outside Rome.

The emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, criticized Poltawska for publishing her letters, accusing her of withholding the correspondence from the Vatican's beatification process and urging her to turn it over so the process can proceed and "avoid future possible problems."

Pope Benedict XVI put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his 2005 death. The preliminary investigation into John Paul's life and virtues, which gathered boxes of documentation as well as testimony from around the world, wrapped up in 2007. Theologians, bishops and cardinals are now reviewing the dossier.

Poltawska has no doubt he will one day be sainted. "He loved all people and wanted to save all," she said. "He had nothing: no car, no TV, no phone, nothing. Just a backpack and his prayer book." *