Visiting the Homeland with Pope John Paul II
The year 1979 was the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, and Pope John Paul II made it clear that he had every intention of returning to his native Poland (under Communist rule, at the time) to take part in the festivities honoring his predecessor as Archbishop of Krakow.
Polish authorities stood in the middle of a game of tug-of-war. On one side, the Vatican and Cardinal WyszyÒski were putting pressure on them to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Poland as part of the anniversary festivities, and on the other hand Moscow didn’t want Pope John Paul II playing the part of a victorious warrior returning home.
What followed then were a series of blunders by the Polish government, which came out as distinct advantages for Pope John Paul II. The pope wanted to be in Poland on May 8, 1979 (for the Feast of St. Stanislaus). Authorities fought this, seeing in it too outward a connection between the circumstances of St. Stanislaus’s standing up to the state and the papal visit. They were against his coming in May and suggested the trip be the following month. Trip organizers agreed, and what was to be a two-day visit to two cities became a nine-day visit to six cities. In addition, the new dates meant that Pope John Paul II would be in Poland for the Feast of Pentecost, the traditional “birthday” of the Church, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and empowered them to preach and teach in the name of Christ. The religious significance of that day was not lost on the people.
The next mistake on the part of the government was the offer to broadcast parts of the visit on national television. They did so for selfish reasons, hoping the ability for people to watch from their own living rooms would minimize the crowds. Not only was televising the visit ineffective in keeping the crowds away, but now the elderly and homebound were able to watch what they would never have had the chance to see, thanks to the government.
In the following sections, we look at the impact created by Pope John Paul in his pilgrimages to Poland.
The first papal visit as Pope John Paul II
In all, Pope John Paul II made eight trips (or pilgrimages, as he considered all of his apostolic journeys) to Poland. But the first visit was the one witnessed by the world and widely considered the one that began the eventual peaceful demise of Communist rule in Poland (as well as the eventual demise of the Soviet Union).
Pope John Paul II arrived in Warsaw on June 2, 1979. Warsaw had become a sea of people, as an estimated three million Poles turned out to be with the pope. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the route from the airport to the inner city just to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II.
During the open-air Mass in Victory Square that followed, Pope John Paul II told them he came to fulfill Pope Paul VI’s wish to visit Poland as a pilgrim. He told them he was there to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, who was killed for standing up in the face of civil authority for the truth (something the Poles did very well). As he stood under a 50-foot cross built for the outdoor celebration of Mass, he reminded the Polish people that they had often been called to give witness to the power of the cross in the life of a Christian, and that as much as past rulers and enemies in Poland’s history had tried to eliminate Christianity, Jesus Christ cannot be taken out of history.
The following day, Pope John Paul II remembered his roots as a college chaplain and celebrated a Mass for university students before flying to the town of Gniezno to visit the relics of St. Adalbert, the first missionary to Poland back in the tenth century. The next day, he traveled to Jasna Gora, the “bright mountain,” which was home to the Paulist monastery and the Polish national treasure of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, followed by a meeting with the natives of the region and a meeting with the sick.
Returning to Krakow and Wadowice
The schedule of meetings with various groups of clergy, religious, and laity continued, until he flew to Krakow for an emotional homecoming. There, he stayed in his old rooms at the Archbishop’s Palace, all the while being serenaded by crowds of teens and college students who stood beneath his window and urged him to join them in singing (which he did until past midnight).
Pope John Paul II retraced his steps as a child by making a pilgrimage to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, named for a 17th-century governor of Krakow who built a series of chapels on the side of a mountain to resemble the shrines and chapels built in Jerusalem at the places Jesus Christ walked on the way to his death on Mount Calvary. Over the years, chapels were added that took into account the traditional lore of Mary’s whereabouts during her son’s Passion (suffering).
Following this trip to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Pope John Paul II returned to his hometown of Wadowice, where he was met by 30,000 people. Later, he traveled to Oswiecim, the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he celebrated Mass and made a trip to the cell where, in 1941, the Polish Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe had voluntarily taken the place of another man and was killed as retribution for an escaped prisoner.
On the evening of June 8, he had an emotional meeting with the young people of Krakow. The high they were feeling during the pope’s visit, combined with their own natural zeal and fervor, made the situation somewhat frightening: What if these young people took matters into their own hands and started to openly and violently revolt against the government? Pope John Paul II mixed humor and paternal advice and teaching to keep them calm and nonviolent.
The last day of the pope’s visit was June 10, 1979, and it began with a Mass on the Krakow commons attended by a crowd of two to three million people.
Words do not do justice to the feelings of joy and happiness that the papal visit brought to the Polish people. Thousands of people opened their homes to strangers to give travelers places to sleep. Churches remained opened around the clock for prayers and the practical necessities of the pilgrims. Homes, storefronts, and huge apartment houses were decorated as if the Holy Father were going to inspect the decorations himself.
An estimated 13 million people saw Pope John Paul II in person, and he left them with the gift of hope. For the first time, they felt there was a real opportunity to change their lives through peaceful means. The sacrifices made by so many to travel to the different places where the Holy Father would be showed them how many they were in numbers compared to the government troops. Suddenly the Polish people realized how they outnumbered those who supposedly were in the majority and in charge of the country.