John Paul II, Krakow’s Eternal Pope

“There is only one pope in Poland,” said a Polish colleague. I didn’t really get the point until I started to explore Poland and noticed Jan Pawel everywhere on the streets. This was Pope John Paul country, Poland’s son and one of the most consequential Popes of the last century. Krakow was where his pre-Papal career was built, and in a way he is Krakow’s eternal Pope.

We passed a building with a painting of the Pope.

“This is the Papal Window”, said our guide, “it began when the Pope visited Krakow for the first time after his elevation to the papacy…” Pope John Paul stayed in that room when he was the Bishop of Krakow and then continued to stay in that room when he returned to Krakow for visits. He would address the crowds from the window and his addresses would draw hundreds and thousands to the grass patch near by.

This tradition has been followed by both his successors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

“Some geniuses decided to repaint the window and we are now left with this, a window that cannot open,’ our guide grumbled.

Saint Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope is one of the most defining figures in modern Polish history, and Krakow is his spiritual home.

Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, a small city near Krakow, Wojtyla was a young man passionate about art performance and football. He lost his mother and siblings early with his mother dying from a heart attack and kidney failure when he was 8 years old (something that has been put forth as a reason for his strong Marian devotion). A talented footballer, Wojtyla played alot of football and in a town with many Jewish people, always played on the Jewish teams side as their goalkeeper. Wojtyla was 18 when he and his father left Wadowice for Krakow and the young man later then enrolled in Jagiellonian University to read philosophy and performed in theatre and drama on the side.

Things turned dark in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and all universities were shut. Wojtyla was variously injured in his various jobs he did to avoid deportation to Germany. At the age of 20, in 1941, Wojtyla Senior died, leaving a 20 year old Karol as the only surviving member of his family, a sentiment he reflected in an interview, “I was not at my mother’s death, I was not at my brother’s death, I was not at my father’s death, at twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved.”

It was at the death of his father that this young man’s life would change and he contemplated becoming a priest for the first time. And in 1942 he joined the underground seminary run by the then Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Adam Sapieha. Wojtyla went through a lot of near misses during the war, saving himself during Black Sunday in 1944 when young men were rounded up to suppress a planned uprising. It was after this period of formation that he was ordained a priest in 1946. To further his studies (all priest ‘destined for more important things than a simple parish priest’ are usually sent to Rome for further studies), Wojtyla was sent to Rome to obtain a licentiate in philosophy and later on a doctorate.

There are times when you are made to wonder if fate and knowledge are preordained. A story goes from the late Austrian Cardinal Alfons Stickler that Wojtyla once visited Padre Pio with him, after making his confession to Padre Pio, the saint prophesied that Wojtyla would ascend ‘to the highest post in the Church’. There was reason to think this a crazy idea. The papacy, the highest post in the church, is a mostly Italian affair. The last Pope, prior to Pope John Paul II’s election in 1978 was Pope Adrian VI who was born in Utrecht (present day Netherlands).

No one else may have conferred with Padre Pio, but the leadership in the Polish church clearly marked Wojtyla for larger roles. He returned to then communist Poland and serve as a parish priest in a village, later being posted to Krakow where he served as a parish priest and a lecturer in Philosophy at both Jagiellonian University and later the Catholic University of Lublin.A brilliant philosopher, Father Wojtyla developed a theology that merged catholic theological thought (Thomism, from St Thomas Aquinas) with a more human experience – a theology known as phenomenological Thomism. A charismatic young priest, many young people were drawn to his classes and lectures, forming a group called the Rodzinska (the little family).

Barely a decade after his ordination, in 1958, Father Karol was made an auxiliary bishop of Krakow, the youngest bishop in all of Poland at the tender age of 38.

1962 was an important year in the history of the modern church, because of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Karol then went to Rome again in 1962 where he was a delegate who spoke at the council. His speeches clearly impressed the whose who in Rome and his thoughts made it into some of the most important final products of the council. Two years later, he was appointed Bishop of Krakow and in 1967 he was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Paul VI.

Then came 1978, the year of Three Popes.

Pope Paul VI has passed away, and a consistory was called. The cardinals wanted a warm pastoral Pope and chose the Patriach of Venice Albino Luciani as the next Pope. What surprised everyone then, although they did not realise it was his insistence on calling himself John Paul the First. It was not the the double barrelled John Paul that was a surprise, it was his insistence of number (the First), repeated saying a second one will come soon. Pope John Paul I died within a month from old age, and a new consistory had to be called.

Two powerful Italian cardinals were the front runners – the liberal Florentine Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, and the conservative Genoan archbishop Giuseppe Siri. The cardinals were locked in a deadlock and could not decide come to a majority. The cardinals then started to try to find alternative candidates, they first tired the Milanese Cardinal Giovanni Colombo who announced he would reject the position. Then came the proposal to go for a young Polish cardinal, Cardinal Wojtyla from Krakow.

While career aspirations are something that is known to also afflict priests, one position that is not wanted and is considered a cursed position is that of the Pope, since the Pope’s every statement and step is scrutinised and he is then kept in a gilded cage in Rome (unlike cardinals and other Bishops).

Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.

Throughout his reign as Pope, Pope John Paul was a powerful symbol of peace – a critic of apartheid, an opponent of capital punishment, an opponent of the Gulf and Iraq Wars and one of the few lone vocal critics of the Rwanda genocide when politicians al over the world looked away. He pushed for the EU to make reference to its Christian past, was the first major religious leader to accept natural selection through evolution.

Pope John Paul II would however continue to give back to his country, with his trip back to Poland being highlighted as the powerful spiritual support that eventually led to the rise of Solidarnosc and the collapse of Communism in Poland.

He reigned as Pope for 27 years and many Christians, and certainly many Krakovians, witnesses the charismatic Pope age and die over time.

To many Krakowvians and Poles however, he remains the Pope in their hearts and a saint in their prayers.


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