The Pilgrim Pope from Poland

The Legacy of Karol Wojtyla—

His Holiness Pope John Paul II

by Stas Kmiec

Polish American Journal, May 2005

“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass
of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
—Pope John Paul II

“Our beloved Holy Father, John Paul, has returned to the house of the Father,” Archbishop Leonardo Sandri announced on Saturday, April 2, 2005. It was the vigil of Mercy Sunday, a feast day dedicated to The Divine Mercy as was requested by our Lord through Sister Faustina Kowalska. The devotion was announced during the canonization of the Polish nun on April 30, 2000 by the Holy Father, and was a symbol of his papacy’s close connection to the Virgin Mary and God.

Pope John Paul II will go down in history as one of the greatest popes ever, one whose intense spirituality, intellectual brilliance and sheer physical stamina were beyond dispute. The Holy Father was not well known outside his native Poland until he was elected pope more than 26 years ago. He grew to become a powerful ambassador for his church and his people. At age 84 he had led a long and meaningful life.

He drew crowds that rival those of a rock star, traveling in his popemobile to get close to the people; he visited 129 countries and kissed the ground of every continent, except Antarctica. He earned the nickname the “Pilgrim Pope.” On a scale unlike any pope before him, he brought the papacy to the people.

John Paul II was never shrouded behind the walls of the Vatican. His travels became a trademark of his papacy. In the 2,000-year history of the church, no other pope traveled as far. Fluent in eight languages, he reached out to the powerful and the poor, seeing not only world leaders, but those in hospitals, slums and prisons. The pope’s travels and ability to talk plainly to the people who came to see him gave him a connection with his audience and a popularity his predecessors may have lacked.

ABC News Vatican correspondent Bill Blakemore, who covered Pope John Paul II during his entire 26-year papacy said “John Paul, when he traveled, attracted these enormous crowds believed to be the largest crowds ever yet assembled on earth.”

The five books he wrote outsold the world’s best and brightest authors, but for Pope John Paul II, a modern man with conservative values, none of this mattered as long as he was spreading his message of Christ’s love and the sanctity of life.

Growing up in Poland, Karol Jozef Wojtyla lived under Nazi occupation. During World War II he was a quarry worker, but secretly he continued his seminary studies. He was active in an underground Christian democratic group that helped Jews escape the Nazis.

Exceptional he turned out to be—a poet, sportsman and priest. He attended Jagiellonian University in Krakow, studying philosophy and literature. After being sent to work with Polish refugees and French youths in France, he got his first experience at the Vatican, earning a doctorate in both philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Angelicum University. He had tears in his eyes when he was elected the first non-Italian pope in 458 years in 1978.

“What you saw is what you got,” said Vatican official, Archbishop John Foley. “An individual who was authentically prayerful, interested, and warm and he had the gift of being able to communicate that on a wide scale.”

But his papacy was not without hardship and controversy. In May of 1981 there was an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square. A Turkish national was convicted of the crime and with great compassion John Paul II visited the gunman in prison to show forgiveness. While giving thanks to Virgin Mary in Fátima for having saved his life, he narrowly escaped attack by bayonet-wielding Spanish priest.

When some Catholics began to question longstanding rituals he held the church line—forthrightly conservative in upholding church doctrine. “The Catholic Church is committed to protecting and cherishing every human life, including the life of the unborn,” he said

His strength of character held equally strong in the political realm he scared down Communism, apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in anti-Semitism and objected to the invasion of Iraq.

In recent years the diagnosis of Parkinson’s slowed his travels, but not before he made an emotional last trip home to Poland in 2002. This quiet man, who rose from humble beginnings, inspired millions as leader of the Catholic Church, but in his role as world leader he continues to reach an even greater audience.

John Paul endured serious health problems with heroic calm—an assassination attempt, the removal of a tumor the size of an orange, two falls that broke his shoulder and leg, and the debilitating onset of Parkinson’s disease.

As evidence of his determination in the face of suffering, the great communicator was unable to speak on Palm Sunday. He struggled with his fate before giving himself over to God’s will. It was his gift to all of us, Catholic or not —to let us see his frailty and suffering—our humanity mirrored in his. The drama and suffering of his last days played out before the world as a metaphor for Christian faith. For so long this had been the way we saw him, but it is now in death that we are reminded of how different he seemed when he became pope over 26 years ago.

Karol Wojtyla was a surprise choice to be the 264th pope. He was selected on October 16, 1978, when none of the favorites could poll a majority among the College of Cardinals. This clearly was something new at 58, young as popes go and Polish, John Paul II, as he decided to be called was the first non-Italian to be chosen in over 450 years, since a Dutch pontiff, Hadrian VI, in 1522.

In retrospect the outline of what sort of pope John Paul II would become is evident for all to see. Karol Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920 in the town of Wadowice. “Lolek” as he was called, was the second son of Karol Wojtyla Sr., a retired army officer and tailor, and Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, a schoolteacher.

One by one members of his family died—first his mother when he was age 8, then his older brother, and finally his father. He was alone by the age of 21, so a preoccupation with family issues and loss were established early. His closest friend was Jerzy Kluger, a Jewish boy from a wealthy local family, with whom the Pope maintained a lifelong friendship.

He never forgot what it was like when the Nazis invaded Poland. The future Pope saw Jewish and Catholic friends taken a way to concentration camps. He was picked up himself, but released. In 1942 he began studying for the priesthood in secret. By the time he was ordained in 1946, the Soviets had replaced the Germans. Just being a priest in Poland made Karol Wojtyla a cold warrior, resisting Communism. It was no accident that one of his first significant acts as Pope was to go home in June of 1979.

“Gorbachev once said to me that the one big mistake of Communism was allowing Pope John Paul II to travel to Poland right after he was elected pope,” stated Raymond Flynn, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and former Mayor of Boston. The pope’s trips lead directly to the rise of the Solidarity movement. Solidarity was the wedge that broke open the calcified and rigid structure of Soviet Communism. The non-violent defeat of Communism is the single largest event of the 20th century and the pope was the architect of this fall.

Four million people gathered to hear Pope John Paul II in Kraków. Hundreds of million more watched him on television. It was the first real inkling of how public his papacy would be.

Many of the pope’s foreign trips were to places that no pope had ever visited before. Surprisingly enough, he became the first reigning pope to travel to the United Kingdom, Canada and Spain, in addition to many smaller and third world countries.

In January 1998, he made a historic visit to Communist Cuba, where his appeals for freedom of speech, human rights and the release of political prisoners were the first noncommunist public speeches since 1959.

His trip, the first to Cuba of any pope, revitalized the Catholic religion on the island nation after almost 40 years of repression, prompting President Fidel Castro to lift the ban on Christmas celebrations. The peaceful revolution John Paul sparked in Cuba was much like the ones he supported in Eastern Europe and his native Poland.

Pope John Paul II tried to force political change elsewhere, admonishing dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti. He was not always successful but stood firm on issues such as violence, aggression and war.

Bridging the gap between religions, the cornerstone of John Paul II’s papacy was his message of tolerance for other faiths. He did more than any of his predeccesors to reach out to people of other faiths. He became the first pontiff to visit a mosque in Syria in 2001. He attempted to mend centuries of tension between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

He was the first pope to ever enter a synagogue. On April 13, 1986 John Paul embraced the Rabbi of Rome at the beginning of his visit to the Synagogue of Rome—a symbolic act denying 2,000 years of Catholic teachings regarding the Jewish religion. He traveled to Israel in 2000 and embraced then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. On that same trip, he went to Palestinian Bethlehem to pray at the traditional birthplace of Jesus and called for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

These travels nearly cost him his life. He was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt, as he crossed St. Peter’s Square, but after 22 days of hospitalization, survived the serious wound to his intestine.

The third secret of Fátima became an obsession for those who speculated that it predicted the end of the world or some rift in the church. Three popes learned of the secret as revealed by Sister Lucia, according to the Vatican, and decided not to release it.

On May 13, 2000, the Vatican secretary of state disclosed that the secret actually referred to the attempted assassination against John Paul II, who figured in the original Fátima vision as “a bishop clothed in white.”

Skeptics were not convinced and have continued to speculate. John Paul, however, accepted that the third secret foretold the attempt on his life and attributed his survival to Our Lady of Fátima. He visited the shrine and Sister Lucia several times and placed the bullet that nearly killed him in the crown of the shrine’s statue in Portugal. The day he was shot was May 13, the anniversary of Our Lady of Fátima.

Who could have imagined that he would visit his would-be killer, Mehmet Ali Agca in prison and forgive him? But along with the great symbolic gestures there were also small, sweet, even humorous moments of spontaneity, intimacy, and humanity.

This was one side of the pontiff—the progressive, media-savvy humanitarian. There was also another side, a more controversial John Paul. He was divided person—clearly committed to a traditional notion of power in the church and his absolute commitment to the power of the papacy. John Paul found himself at odds with millions of Catholics in the United States and Europe, who considered him reactionary and out of touch.

“That’s My Logic.” Many Westerners found the pope’s positions on sex and gender issues a confusing contrast to his charm as a pastor and his concern for the poor and oppressed.

The late Tad Szulc, a papal biographer, asked John Paul about this. The pope said, “No, it’s you people who misunderstand. I am totally consistent. In my mind it is completely and totally organic logic. For example, I am a believer in human rights; therefore, I am a believer in human life. If I am a believer in human life, I have to exclude abortion; I have to exclude all means of artificial conception.” He said, “That is my logic, take it or not.”

 “It is interesting to note that in the United States, it seems different people seized different parts of the pope’s agenda and identified with that, but not with the entire agenda,” said Fr. Joseph O’Hare, president emeritus of Fordham University.

The pope visited San Francisco, Calif. in 1987, at the height of that city’s AIDS crisis. He held a mass that several AIDS patients attended, including 4-year old Brendan O’Rourke. The family sought not a cure, but comfort and blessing. During his entrance, the pope paused and embraced the child. In his homily he spoke of God’s love—“God loves you all. He loves those of you who are sick, those who are suffering from AIDS.” This broke down barriers, introducing AIDS to the world in a way it that it had not been willing to see before. It had been seen as a disease that only certain people were contracting, but now was revealed as a disease that people were getting.

“He defined what a Pole was. The pope created the possibility of giving a voice to Poland. He became the spokesman of Poland to the world.”
—Adam Boniecki, editor, Tygodnik Powszechny

This pope scorned the empty pursit of wealth and goods in rich countries, cautioning the powerful nations of the world and speaking out for the poorer ones. He admitted that the church had made historical mistakes over the past two millenniums and in the year 2000, against the advice of his inner circle in Rome, apologized for them, most notably for a history of anti-Semitism, the Inquisition and the Crusades and later formally declared the church erred in condemning Galileo.

Poland’s loss. Nowhere is the loss of Pope John Paul II being more deeply felt than in his native Poland. As soon as they heard their beloved Pope had died, Poles of all ages headed to churches to pray, to reflect and to remember. Even the young, born after John Paul had left his native land for the Vatican, felt his intimate presence.

The Roman Catholic Church lost one of its most charismatic and influential leaders, but Poland lost one of the great men of this country’s turbulent and tragic history—the man who represented to them nothing less than the savior of the national Polish soul.

The16th century bell of the Wawel Cathedral the largest bell in Poland tolled his passing. With a deep and mystical timber, it has been rung rarely in its nearly 500-year history, only on historic occasions. The last time it had been heard in Kraków was in 1978 when the city’s local son was elected pope. The pope had always been interested in that bell, saying it is the soul of Poland.

In Poland, it was the end of an era, one that began in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and Poland was a Communist dictatorship and one that ended with Poland democratic and secure.

One by one, and as a nation they mourned the loss of their great liberator, the man they believe gave them the courage to defeat Communism in Poland. The defining moment came in 1979 at the first mass that John Paul gave in Poland after becoming pope. He said four simple words: “Do not be afraid.” The effect was electrifying.

Suddenly Poles discovered in their Catholic faith a powerful political tool. It united them with anti-Communist trade unionists in the great Solidarity movement and went on to overthrow Poland’s Russian-backed government. For many in that crowd this was just the latest and greatest gift to Poland from a man who had always loved and advised his countrymen.

The Górale highlanders gave the pope the warmest and most moving welcome of all. The Mayor of Zakopane, Adam Bachleda-Curuœ paid tribute to him on behalf of all Polish highlanders. “Thank you for getting us out from under the yoke of red slavery,” he said. “Now you are teaching us to clear our fatherland’s house of everything that brings shame, destruction, slavery and ruin.”

When the pope left the Polish mountains, the crowd broke out in a traditional popular song about a highlander who leaves his ancestors’ mountain pastures, “Góralu, czy ci nie żal” (“Highlander, are you not grieving?”). The song soon became synonymous with Poland’s deep affection with pope.

“I am happy that I lived in the time of John Paul II,” President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland said on Polish television. “We wouldn’t have had a free Poland without him.”

As Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity labor union movement, once stated: “The pope was 50 percent responsible for the fall of Communism; Solidarity 30 percent; the international situation responsible for the rest.”

“He was the presence who created the Polish identity,” said the Rev. Adam Boniecki, the editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, a Catholic weekly. “He defined what a Pole was. The pope created the possibility of giving a voice to Poland. He became the spokesman of Poland to the world.”

 While the rest of the world mourns the loss of Pope John Paul II, poles are grieving a death in their family.

In one of his final messages, Pope John Paul II entrusted himself to God’s “merciful love” and urged the faithful in his native Poland to follow his example. The message was read to thousands of worshipers attending Mass outside Kraków, where John Paul served as archbishop from 1964 until he became pope in 1978.

 “The Sunday of Divine Mercy is approaching, and I want to sincerely bless all those gathered [here] to love God for His merciful love,” the pope’s tender missive read. “I wish to once again entrust the church, the world, all people around the globe and myself in my weakness to this love,” he added. The message was dated two days before the pope died.

Some 2 million people traveled to Rome to pay final requiem to Pope John Paul II. People filed past the pope’s crimson-robed body lying in state at St. Peter’s Basilica at a rate of about 18,000 an hour. Hundreds of thousands of Poles poured into Rome on the final day, but their presence had already been evident throughout the city. The presidential assemblage from the United States joined nearly 200 other world leaders in Vatican City for the funeral.

Spiritual Will. The Vatican said a Mass for the Feast of Divine Mercy was celebrated beginning at 8:00 p.m. and was officiated over by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, Cardinal Marian Jaworski and two Polish prelates. The sacrament for the sick and dying, formerly known as last rites, was administered, along with Viaticum, or communion received when death appears imminent.

The Vatican said the pope’s final hours were marked by the “uninterrupted prayer of all those who were assisting him in his pious death and by the choral participation in prayer of the thousands of faithful who for many hours had been gathered in St. Peter’s Square.”

Just before he died, Pope John Paul II stared from his bed at the window of his airy, sparsely furnished Vatican bedroom, looking toward the crowd gathered below in St. Peter’s Square he whispered “Amen,” and grasped the hand of his long-serving private secretary and close friend, Dziwisz.

Present at the moment of death were his two secretaries, Dziwisz and Monsignor Mieczysław Mokrzycki, Jaworski, Archbishop Stanisław Ryłko, the Rev. Tadeusz Styczeń, three nuns who assisted the pope, their superior, Sister Tobiana Sobódka and Ewa Kostrzębska, a Polish nurse who worked with the pontiff for the last 16 years.

 “I always remember these words he once told me,” said Kostrzębska: “Z kim przestajesz, tym zostajesz, which means, you become like those around you.”

Close Vatican aide, Cardinal Edmund Szoka said that John Paul II embodied the virtues of faith, hope, charity and love and was a living example of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.

The late pope’s testament, a last message to the faithful and the world was a 15-page document written in his native Polish throughout his papal tenure. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, said that the document was a “very, very moving spiritual testament of a man who lived with the Lord.”

The late Pope John Paul II suggested in his last testament that he considered the possibility of resigning in 2000, when the Roman Catholic Church began its new millennium and he turned 80, but later considered that Christ did not put down his cross, and he would continue to bear his physical limitations.

The document also said he left no material property and asked that all his personal notes be burned. It mentioned only two living people: his personal secretary and the chief rabbi of Rome who welcomed him to Rome’s synagogue in 1986.

The Polish-born pope had considered the possibility of a funeral in Poland, but later left it up to the College of Cardinals to decide.

The pope was buried in the grotto beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, with a white silk veil on his face. His body was dressed in liturgical vestments, and his remains were placed inside the traditional three coffins—wood, zinc and wood. A number of commemorative medals and a biography will be buried with him, Archbishop Piero Marini, the chief of liturgical ceremonies, told the press, but not soil from his native Poland, as many Poles had requested.

His personal magnetism and charisma somehow managed to bridge the divisions within the Catholic Church. People liked him, even if they disagreed with him. On the evening before his death Pope John Paul was told that St. Peter’s Square was filled with young people. According to a spokesman, the dying pope then seemed to mouth these words to them, “I have looked for you, now you have come to me, and I thank you.”

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