‘John Paul served the Church and the world’

In his homeland, the Polish Pope’s star continues to shine

When the Blessed John Paul II is canonised on April 27, hundreds of thousands of Poles are expected to descend on Rome to celebrate. But the occasion will be marked on a mass scale in the late Pontiff’s homeland as well – especially in Krakow, its ancient spiritual capital, where he served as an archbishop and cardinal before his fateful 1978 election.

It will be an occasion for taking stock of his unique standing here, which shows little sign of diminishing nine years on from his death.

“John Paul II proclaimed the truth of the Gospel with courage, but also with humility, reaching peoples’ hearts,” Poland’s Catholic bishops proudly reminded their country’s 30,000 priests in a Holy Week letter.

“In a world where liberalism, relativism and subjectivism have raised their voices, the Blessed Pope calls us to be faithful to Christ and the Church’s teaching office. He served the Church and the world, and millions of concrete people, with words, prayers and pilgrimages, as well as with sufferings, testimonies to faith and trust in God, recalling human dignity and life’s sanctity.”

Born at Wadowice on May 18, 1920, three months before an invading Bolshevik army was routed at the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’, the then Karol Wojtyla belonged to a generation of Poles nurtured on the supreme value of freedom and independence, but also knowing all too well the bitter taste of defeat and occupation.

As Pope, he became an international figure, with concerns far beyond his native country.


But he remained distinctly Polish in his attitudes and reflexes, with a reverence for tradition and respect for authority, combined with cautious attitude to liberal democracy and a disdain for individualism. His religiousness was Polish too, with its austerity and self-denial, its devotion to the Virgin Mary, and its special emphasis on external signs and symbols.

The Pope’s heroic status in his native land was highlighted at his death on April 2, 2005, when millions of Poles came together in vigils and marches, festooning their windows and balconies with candles and portraits.

Some compared the ‘papal April’ to great collective moments of national history – such as the recovery of Polish statehood in 1918, or the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi rule. Two million Poles travelled to Rome, where John Paul II’s St Peter’s Square funeral became festooned with Polish flags and banners.

Six years on, the great Pontiff still towers far above all other Polish figureheads, clerical and lay – while the unquestioning adulation for him is what most marks the Polish Church off from Catholic communities elsewhere.

In a survey during his final years by Warsaw’s Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), 58% of Poles cited his 1978 election as the 20th Century’s “most important event”, while three-quarters believed he had wielded greater “influence on the world’s fate” than any other modern-day figure.

The Polish Church’s authority and prestige, nurtured under communism, are linked with popular reverence for the Pope; so its leaders have worked to maintain it, discouraging any questioning of his teaching or more controversial aspects of his pontificate.

Besides holding honorary citizenship of dozens of towns and cities, John Paul II has given his name to 1,320 schools nationwide and hundreds of streets, squares, hospitals and care homes, while a hundred statues of the Pope are estimated to have been unveiled annually since his death.

The anniversary of his election is marked nationwide on October 16 with a John Paul II Day, featuring Masses, concerts, exhibitions, debates and sports events.

Since the Pope’s May 2011 beatification, furthermore, dozens of churches, some newly built, have been dedicated to him, stimulating a keen hunt for relics and papal artefacts and memorabilia.

Beyond the adulation, there is much in today’s Poland which contradicts the spiritual and moral vision which John Paul II did so much to foster.

The country’s Gross Domestic Product has risen sharply over the quarter-century since communist rule, making it the European Union’s sixth largest economy, and the only one maintaining growth during the recession.

Though lauded by some as a showcase of Catholic piety combined with free market prosperity, however, the country’s post-communist economic growth has carried a heavy social price.

European Union and United Nations reports have confirmed high levels of poverty and child deprivation. Though avowedly Catholic, meanwhile, Poland devotes fewer resources than any other EU country to family support, producing one of the continent’s lowest birth rates and highest incidences of working poor.


Annual research by Warsaw’s Social Monitoring Council has shown low levels of personal trust and an eroded sense of common good, in a striking reversal of Poland’s cherished Solidarity legacy.

Although the predominant Catholic Church runs an extensive charity network, critics have accused it of saying too little about material hardships, alongside its vigorous condemnation of such practices as abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Church has also been battered since John Paul II’s death by negative publicity, chiefly caused by what many see as attempts to suppress evidence about its secret police infiltration under communist rule, and to cover up and play down sexual abuse by Polish clergy.

Priestly and monastic vocations have fallen sharply, accompanied by signs of declining Mass attendance, while anti-clerical feeling, directed against the Church’s wealth and influence, has surfaced with a vengeance via alternative media and social networking sites.

Some prominent figures have questioned aspects of the Pope’s cult in his homeland, including the huge sums spent on elaborate projects such as a John Paul II basilica and centre now being constructed in Krakow’s Lagiewniki suburb at an estimated cost of €120 million.

Dedicated last June by the Pontiff’s one-time secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the complex is approached via Totus Tuus Street, and will house a smart hotel, conference centre and 100-foot viewing tower, as well as a 17,000 square-metre John Paul II museum.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Dziwisz was bitterly criticised for apparently ignoring John Paul II’s final will by publishing his private notebooks in a collection, Jestem bardzo w rekach Boych (“I am very much in God’s hands”), to raise money for the Lagiewniki project.

Such doubts and reservations will be put on hold, however, when John Paul II is proclaimed a saint next Sunday and Poles gather in this southern city to celebrate.

Situated close to the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where the plains of central Poland run up against the Tatra Mountains, Krakow is a city of faith, with more places of worship per square mile than either Rome or Jerusalem.

It’s also city of culture, with 6,000 historic buildings and an estimated 2.5 million artworks, which was placed on UNESCO’s World Historical Heritage list in 1978, the year’s of Wojtyla’s election.

The Pope returned to Krakow eight times after that date, and there are places here which will remain indelibly associated with him, from Rakowicka Cemetery, where his parents and brother lie buried, to the Metropolitan’s residence on Franciszkanska Street, from whose main window he addressed rapturous crowds during his visits.

Pop concert

Besides events in the city’s fabled Main Square, the Pope is to appear at the window again on the day of his canonisation, via a specially designed 3D film, while city inhabitants have been invited to a televised pop concert and overnight vigil, as well as a vast TV link-up with the canonisation ceremony in Rome.

The Polish Church’s Catholic information agency, KAI, has run a daily ‘papal service’ for the past months, with glowing assessments and reminiscences, and Poland’s National Bank is to mark the event with the latest of 50 special papal coins issued since 1978. In his Polish homeland at least, the new saint’s star shines as bright as ever.