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John Paul still a draw in his homeland

Krakow, Poland

Seen from Poland, the wonder of John Paul II is perhaps less the “fortress Catholicism” of his worldview, the in-built suspicion of modernity, but the fact that this product of rock-solid traditional Polish parish life is in many ways anything but parochial.

John Paul, after all, opened Catholicism to Judaism and Islam, convoked three inter-religious summits in Assisi, apologized for almost everything the Catholic church has ever done to almost everyone, and has drawn on 20th century thinkers such as Heidegger and Husserl to repackage traditional Christian doctrines.

Perhaps, just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Polish pope could venture so boldly onto the terrain of what was once excoriated by a gaggle of pontiffs as the heresy of “modernism.”

Poland is, indeed, a very Catholic place.

It’s not just that, according to official statistics, some 95 percent of the population of 38 million is Roman Catholic. It’s that a strongly devotional Catholicism still oozes from the national pores -- despite the czars, despite the Communists, even despite the invasion of the heathen West with all its gaudy charms and its easy-going, post-Christian relativism.

To be sure, Catholicism does not hold sway here in the totalitarian, integralist manner it once did. Poles today see little contradiction between packing their churches on Sunday and electing a non-believer Socialist president, over the not-so-subtle opposition of the country’s primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Warsaw. (A Glemp spokesperson accused President Aleksander Kwasniewski during the last election campaign of promoting “abortion, narcotics, and pornography,” and Kwasniewski nevertheless cruised to re-election).

Moreover, homogenous Polish Catholicism can sometimes shade off into fundamentalism. A conservative movement is centered around the powerful Radio Maria, a religious radio network that broadcasts throughout the country. Some of its clerics make common cause with a political party called Self-Defense, led by radical populist Andrzej Lepper. There have also been accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding Radio Maria.

Yet walking the streets of Krakow, the nation’s third-largest city and its cultural capital, the night before the Aug. 18 papal Mass, a deep popular faith was on clear display. Every church in the city center was packed with pilgrims preparing for the next day, most on their knees.

The church of Sts. Peter and Paul, for example, was full of young people who are part of the “Light and Life” movement. The nearby church of St. Dominick was overflowing with people who had come to hear the first Mass of their new associate pastor, timed to coincide with the pope’s visit.

This was, by the way, a Saturday night, and there were far more people in churches than in cinemas or restaurants. (They could not be in the bars, since city fathers had discontinued sale of alcohol for the duration of the pope’s stay).

The Mass itself at Krakow’s Blonia Commons on August 18 drew some 2.2 million, with another 500,000 on the surrounding streets, according to police estimates. It was the largest crowd ever assembled in Poland to see John Paul II, proof that after nine visits the pope is still a draw. What was remarkable, however, was not so much the size of the crowd -- John Paul got some six to ten million just last month in Mexico. This pope has always been a magnet for humanity.

What was more striking was the quiet, the reverence, the climate of prayer. This was no papal pep rally or Wojtyla’s Woodstock -- by and large, these people actually came to go to Mass. When it came time for the Eucharistic prayer, 2.2 million people dropped to their knees in heat and mud, and one could hear a pin drop.

Poles know they have a uniquely tenacious brand of Catholicism, and some can’t help feeling a certain pride in comparison with other national churches. This became clear, for example, talking with Jesuit Fr. Jozef Lukaszczyk, a Pole who for the last 15 years has lived in the United States. He is the chaplain at the Black Madonna Shrine in Eureka, Missouri, and had come home to see the pope.

Lukaszczyk was sitting in the vast crowd at Blonia waving a small American flag.

“I am a United States citizen now, and I want people to know I am not ashamed of it,” he explained to NCR.


“Oh, sometimes Polish priests will think that priests in the United States don’t pray, they aren’t holy, that you should be ashamed,” he said. “But I’m not. There are many beautiful things about the Unites States. This is my life.”

Then, quietly, he allowed that he too has seen some U.S. priests who “stay too far away from tradition,” and Lukaszczyk said he blames this in part for the sex scandals currently rocking the U.S. church.

(For the record, Poland itself has not been spared from the sex abuse crisis. Archbishop Julia Paetz of Poznan, a former aide to John Paul II in the Vatican, recently was forced to resign under accusations of sexual advances towards seminarians).

Even second-generation Polish immigrants, lacking the language or lived experience of the land, get in on the act. George Sliwa, 41, of Birmingham, England, who was visiting for the first time the country his parents came from, testily rejected speculation that their Polish pope might resign.

“It would be to cave in to the worst, most reactionary elements in the Catholic church who have been trying to destroy the work he has been doing for the last 23 years,” Sliwa said.

“He will never quit. After all, he’s Polish.”

Actually, John Paul made joking reference to the resignation rumors that dogged the trip. During his Angelus remarks Aug. 18, the crowd chanted “stay with us, stay with us.” The pope shot back: “Nice, nice. They’re asking me to desert the Vatican.”

The deep Catholic sensibility in Poland, John Paul’s role in bringing down Soviet oppression, and the basic national pride people here feel for a native son who made good, combine to create an intensely personal emotional attachment. John Paul II appears to be literally the father of the country -- living proof, perhaps, that celibacy does not have to mean giving up a family.

When John Paul arrived at the Shrine of Divine Mercy on August 17, the sung chorus of “papa, father” reached a fever pitch. When he arrived at Blonia August 18, cries of “We love you!” filled the air, momentarily puncturing the otherwise reverent atmosphere.

Jerzy Wojtczak, who heads the Polish branch of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said he was convinced that John Paul had come home this time not so much as the pope, but as a “son of Poland.”

“The cultural and social circumstances of the country are dangerous, and he has come to comfort us on our difficult walk of life,” Wojtczak told NCR.

Inevitably, the pope’s age and infirmity colored the experience too.

“This may be the last time the pope comes to Poland,” said Marie Sadowska, 14, in explaining why she wanted to be at the Aug. 18 papal Mass. She said she wanted to say goodbye, just in case.

Jadwiga Tombarkiewicz, however, was equally emotional in the opposite direction.

“You cannot say this is the last time,” she said. “We don’t want to hear about it. We want him to live 100 years.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, posted August 20, 2002