Where John Paul the Great lives on
On a glorious sunny day I headed out to Wadowice, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II. I took a rather ancient train which took an hour and a half to travel the 30 miles or so south to the small town of Wadowice, largely because it seemed always to be going off on branch lines to remote stations from which it would depart in reverse to continue its meandering way south. I didn’t really mind. It showed me some of the beautiful Polish countryside.
Every homestead seemed to have apple or cherry trees surrounding it, all in blossom. At one point I saw a man ploughing a small strip of land behind his house, driving a team of horses before the plough. We passed within sight of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Krakow diocese’s huge outdoor shrine to the Mother of God. Here as a child, a seminarian, a priest and even as bishop John Paul would come often, “walking along the paths in solitude and presenting to the Lord in prayer the various problems of the Church, especially in the times during the difficult struggle against Communism”, as he explains in Gift and Mystery.
In the main square of Wadowice is the Church of the Presentation where Karol Wojtyła was baptised. It was not, judging by the photographs, always as smart as it is now. The white stucco front gleams in the sunshine, and there is a bronze statue of John Paul outside, with flowers and votive lights at its feet. Inside, the ceiling has been frescoed with scenes illustrating the Pope’s numerous encyclicals. I was struck by the picture for Evangelium Vitae: it depicts the Slaughter of the Innocents. Across the square from the church is the building which housed the primary school where the young Karol studied, and in the street adjacent to the church is the place where here was born. The family lived in a two-room apartment there. This survives, its interior details recreated, and has been extended to include a museum of his life with some touching artefacts like school reports, his skis, the battered briefcase that he used when teaching in the university, as well as papal robes and shoes.
Everywhere, both here and in the city of Krakow, you sense the presence of Pope John Paul II, as though he had only very recently departed. Krakow, for so may centuries the cradle of Polish civilisation, formed him in its heart and he in his turn has left an indelible mark on it and on its people. I imagine it had a very different feel today from when he left it in 1978.
At the episcopal palace, opposite the Franciscan church, a picture of John Paul stands in the central window over the portico, commemorating an appearance to a huge crowd of young people there on one of his last visits to his former home.
In the courtyard there is a statue of him and a wonderful exhibition of photographs of his time both as a bishop in Krakow and as Bishop of Rome. There was something so intimate about being able to wander the courtyard which he knew so well, even long before he became a bishop, when he entered it as a clandestine seminarian escaping the attention of the Nazis. Very close by are the beautiful buildings of the Jagiellonian University where he studied Polish language and literature, and later philosophy and theology.
Most splendid of all perhaps are the surroundings of the Wawel Cathedral. This beautiful building, a mixture of the medieval and the baroque, is situated on the Wawel Hill which rises above the Vistula and dominates the city. On this hill Poland’s rulers built a huge complex of fortifications and palaces to hold their courts until the end of the 16th century when the capital moved to Warsaw. Even then it remained the symbolic seat of the Polish crown and monarchs continued to be crowned and buried here. It was in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral that the newly ordained Karol Wojtyła celebrated his first Mass, surrounded by the tombs of saints and kings, including St Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland, on the feast of All Souls 1946. Fifty years later, in Gift and Mystery, he explains: “I wanted to express my spiritual bond with the history of Poland, a history symbolised by the hill of Wawel.” But there was a theological reason also, he explains, saying that the presence of these tombs seems to echo the words of the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” He can surely not have imagined how this commitment to the service of his homeland and his own people would finally involve his having to leave them, and in leaving them bring the attention of the world to bear on their long struggle for freedom from tyranny. It is all too easy to forget that great men are exactly that: they are men with great hearts. Seeing the places so intimately associated with Karol Wojtyła’s life as a priest and bishop, I just kept thinking how difficult it must have been for him to leave these roots, to tear them up. But he surely kept faith with his nation and its history. I am tempted to say that it feels as if the people of Krakow have him back again now, as they have kept his memory alive in their hearts so faithfully. Having, as it were, given him to the world, the world will now repay the debt by coming to seek the places he made his own there when soon he becomes St John Paul the Great.