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In Poland, pope stresses history and hope

NCR Staff

In a trip that seemed to gather up many of the themes of his papacy -- the search for peace at the close of a bloody century, the connection between faith and reason, outreach to Orthodoxy and the lessons of Polish history -- John Paul II returned to his native country June 5-17, visiting 21 cities in 13 days.

In a Poland still feeling the aftershocks of the transition from communism to Western-style capitalism, issues of social justice were also center stage -- and were accompanied by some criticism of church expenditures, both the millions spent on the trip itself and the $50 million laid out for a soaring new cathedral consecrated by John Paul.

Though it may strike many Western observers as ironic, members of the progressive wing of Poland’s still deeply conservative Catholic community said they felt a shot in the arm from the papal trip.

Born in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920, the pope said at the outset of his visit that he brought “the greeting of a fellow Pole who comes among you to fulfill the needs of his own heart.”

Echoes of John Paul’s first trip to Poland in 1979, the Solidarity movement it helped to spark and the subsequent collapse of communism across Eastern Europe could be heard throughout the journey.

In Gdansk, the city whose shipyards gave birth to Solidarity, the pope called those days “a turning point in the history of our nation and in the history of Europe.”

The “new Europe,” unified from the Atlantic to the Urals, was born here, the pope said.

John Paul invoked Polish martyrs both ancient and new, from Ss. Adalbert and Stanislaus to Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, killed in 1994 by communist police. “Their blood was poured out on our land and made it fertile for growth for the harvest,” the pope said.

The quest for peace was a constant theme. “How much innocent blood is being shed under our very eyes?” the pope lamented at a Mass in Bydgoszcz. “We are witnesses to how strongly people cry out and yearn for peace. The tragic events in Kosovo have shown us this and are still showing us this so painfully.”

In Bydgoszcz, more than one-quarter of the city’s population of 144,000 was wiped out by the Nazis during World War II. In a gesture of reconciliation, the cardinals of Berlin, Cologne and Vienna attended the June 7 Mass with the pope.

John Paul also took up the relationship between faith and reason in a visit to Torun, the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

“Although Copernicus himself saw his discovery as giving rise to even greater amazement at the creator of the world and the power of human reason,” John Paul said, “many people took it as a means of setting reason against faith.” The pope called that split “one of humanity’s great tragedies.”

The pope met several times with Orthodox Christians, hoping to build on the ecumenical momentum generated by his May visit to Romania -- the first by a pope to a predominantly Orthodox nation. Reunion with Eastern Orthodoxy has long been a desideratum for John Paul, who has said Christianity needs to “breathe with both lungs.”

Progressive Catholics in Poland told the media they hoped the pope’s commitment to ecumenical outreach, social justice and democratic government in the secular arena would move their church toward a fuller embrace of those concepts.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the head of the Polish church, acknowledged to reporters there is “a need to work on” these issues.

John Paul distanced himself from Radio Maryja, a fiercely conservative Catholic radio station with an audience of 5 million (one in eight Poles). The pope asked that Mary would ”guide your radio to meetings with new people and with new times,” a comment taken by many as an indirect rebuke. The station has come under criticism for, among other things, the alleged anti-Semitic tone of some of its content.

Despite Poland’s surging economy, a growing gap between rich and poor has generated concern. John Paul repeatedly called for social justice during the trip and held meetings with Polish workers threatened with layoffs.

Nevertheless, criticism of the church on dollars-and-cents issues followed the pope across Poland. In Lichen, John Paul consecrated a new basilica modeled after St. Peter’s in Vatican City. The basilica is at least 100 yards long and more than 30 stories high, making it the seventh largest in Europe. John Paul presented a gold and pearl rosary to be displayed in the church.

The basilica cost more than $50 million to build, generated through private contributions, and some Poles voiced doubts about the wisdom of the project.

”They should have given the money for something else,” one housewife told a reporter. ”We can honor God with prayer well enough.”

Expenses of the 13-day trip, estimated to run into the millions, also generated some criticism. Papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said that the pope had visited much poorer countries, especially in Africa. ”The pope’s message is priceless as it is the message of Christ, which cannot be counted in money,” he said.

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999