Vol. 9, Issue No. 28/2002
John Paul II's triumphal 9th homecoming
by Robert Strybel
The ninth visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland was a triumphal homecoming and a sentimental journey which showed that the Polish-born Pontiff, despite his physical frailties, still had a mission to carry out. The pilgrimage squelched rumors that the Holy Father was likely to step down due to his advanced age and failing health. One French newspaper erroneously predicted that the former Kraków Archbishop would announce his retirement in Poland and not return to the Vatican. Although no Supreme Pontiff has voluntarily retired in 700 years, the Western secular press for some time has been urging the pope to abdicate and preferably lock himself away in some remote mountain-top monastery. But the Holy Father has repeatedly said he would see his mission to the very end likes the apostles Peter and Paul. During his latest visit to his native land he prayed to the Blessed Virgin at the Shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska for the physical and spiritual strength to fulfill God¹s will.
The Polish-born Pontiff was in exceptionally good form and spirits throughout most of his four-day homecoming and spoke with a stronger and clearer voice, although at times he displayed signs of and fatigue. The 82-year-old former Kraków archbishop is afflicted with a string of maladies, including crippling arthritis, which restricts his mobility, and Parkinson¹s disease, which causes his left hand to tremble and makes speech difficult. The adoring crowds that surrounded him wherever he appeared seemed to re-invigorate Poland's favorite son. A 2.7-million-strong gathering chanting "Witamy w domu" (Welcome home), "Kochamy Ciebie" (We love you) and "Zostan z nami" (Stay with us), singing "Sto Lat" and waving flags could not fail to make a powerful impression. This outpouring of love and adulation undoubtedly charged up the pope's batteries for the serious task of explaining the concept of God¹s Mercy, the central theme of his pilgrimage. Although in today' secularized world the very concept of "Divine Mercy" may smack of medieval theology, the Holy Father convincingly showed how much that value was needed in today¹s troubled times.
"Where hatred and the desire for revenge prevails, where war brings pain and death to the innocent, the grace of mercy is needed to calm people's minds and hearts and give rise to peace," he said while consecrating a newly built basilica in the Kraków suburb of Lagiewniki. Addressing the multitudes gathered the following day on Krakow's grassy riverside commons known as Blonia (meadows), the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics said: "The 20th century, despite achievements in many areas, is marked in a particular way by the 'mystery pageant of iniquity.' With that heritage of good but also of evil we have entered the new millennium. Mankind is faced with new prospects for development as well as new, hitherto unknown threats. Man often lives as if God did not exist, and even sets himself up in His place. He usurps the Creator's right to interfere in the mystery of human life. He tries to decided its coming into existence, determine its shape through genetic tampering and ultimately set the boundary of death. Rejecting God's laws and moral principles, he openly opposed the family. In many ways he seeks to drown out the voice of God in people's hearts and turn Him into 'the great absent one.'"
To make it clear who is responsible, John Paul II went on to clarify: "Various forces, often guided by a false ideology of freedom, are seeking to cultivate this ground. (...) The noisy propaganda of liberalism, of freedom without truth and responsibility is expanding also in our country." As an antidote to the philosophy of selfishness and greed spreading throughout today¹s world, the Pope proposed the following: "What is need is a glance of mercy to see your brother next to you who feels abandoned, lost and hopeless upon losing his job, the roof over his head, the possibility of supporting his family with dignity and educating his children. An imagination of mercy is needed to rush to the aid of a spiritually or materially neglected child and not turn away from the boy or girl who has gone astray in the world of various addictions and crime."
The Supreme Pontiff beatified four Poles with highly different backgrounds: Warsaw Archbishop Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski, sent by the Russian tsar into Siberian exile; Father Jan Beyzym, a Jesuit who ministered to lepers in Madagascar; Father Jan Balicki, the prewar rector of the Przemysl Seminary who brought people back to God through the confessional; and Sister Sancja Szymkowiak, a nun devoted to the poor in the slums of Poznan. "All four are united my the cause of mercy," the Holy Father explained as he raised them to the final stage before achieving full sainthood.
But even the weightiest theological issues were occasionally lightened by touches of Karol Wojtyla's still sparkling wit. On one of the many occasions when his admiring throngs began chanting "Stay with us, stay with us," the Pope quipped: "That's nice -- they want to talk me into deserting Rome." That was his only indirect reference to the Western critics who feel he should step down and let a younger man take over at the Vatican. On all three nights of his stay in Krakow, after nightfall he came to the window to briefly chat and joke with thousands of smiling, cheering, singing young people gathered below. To the chant of "Welcome home," the Pope replied: "If anyone should ask, it's No. 3 Franciszkanska Street."
Into a program that even someone half his age would fund hectic, the Pope wove in an unplanned supper for 14 of his personal friends, including nine former classmates. He also made a brief stop at St. Florian's Church, his first assignment as a young priest. He asked to be taken by helicopter over his birthplace of Wadowice and his beloved Tatra Mountains and hours before his return to Rome decided to pay surprise visits to two Krakow monasteries. His visit to the retreat center at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska was also a sentimental journey to the shrine his dad had taken him to as a boy. In later life, many of his most important decisions were made while praying the life-sized Stations of the Cross scattered about a park full of shrines and chapels. His visit to his family's grave at Krakow's Rakowicki Cemetery was yet another stop along memory lane. Although determined to see his mission through to the very end, the Pope displayed a full awareness of his mortality when on more than one occasion he asked Poles to pray for him during his lifetime and after his death.
To see the Pope many pilgrims traveled all night in incredibly packed standing-room-only, braved traffic jams and covered the last miles on foot. To be able to get anywhere near the Pope, people camped out in sleeping bags, shuddering in the cold at night and suffering scorching heat and unbelievable congestion in the run-up to the papal mass. They suffered thirst, complained of the heat and humidity, felt cranky due to all the jostling, but when the Holy Father appeared, their discomfort was immediately forgotten. After it was all over, they started trickling back home, lugging bags, backpacks and rolled-up mats. They looked tired, rumpled and wilted after hours in the scorching sun, but most were smiling and chatting, and many young people left singing bouncy religious songs, a capella or to guitar accompaniment.
Various observers and analysts -- sociologists, politicians and journalists -- have wondered about the secret of the Holy Father's charisma, especially his ability to relate to young people, whose great-grandfather he could be. The answer is really quite simple. John Paul II is authentic, sincere and for real. He does not modify his views to suit changing public tastes and he does not say one thing and do something else. Young people, even children who grown-ups think do not understand, are extremely sensitive to sincerity and are the first to detect the slightest signs of hypocrisy. That is why there is no politician, no rock star or other celebrity that can draw impressive crowds in country after country. In Poland, in particular, the former Kraków Archbishop looms like a giant father figure who had safely shepherded his people out of the quicksand of communism and is now helping them avoid the pitfalls of rapacious, inhuman and profit-obsessed capitalism.
As Polish Americans, we are truly fortunate and can be proud to share the same ancestral roots as Karol Wojtyla. There is no one quite like the Polish-born Pontiff and maybe there never will be. His wisdom, universality, openness to people of every race and creed and the respect he commands have enhanced the prestige of Poland and Polonia alike. He is undoubtedly the most impressive personality of the 20th century. And so far, no one in the 21st has yet to even come close in terms significance, authority and humanity.