Dark days in Krakow brought the world a great light
Pilgrims making the journey to Krakow for World Youth Day should prepare for an encounter with two popes—Pope Francis, of course, but also St. John Paul II, whose legacy lives on in this Polish city.
With each passing year the memories of the first Polish pope are growing dimmer and dimmer. In an effort to keep his memory alive for both pilgrims and those who may not be making the long journey to Krakow, George Weigel and I, along with photographer Stephen Weigel, have chronicled the pope’s life in City of Saints: A Pilgrim’s Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. In the book, Weigel coaxed the old stones of Krakow to talk—telling the story of the influence the city had on the saint and the saint had on the city. There is no better way to get to know Pope Saint John Paul II than to come to know the town that helped make him the saint he is.
Similar in size and tenor to Florence, Italy, Krakow is bustling with a rich culture of musicians, students, artists, tourists and eclectic townsfolk. A city of deep piety, some have called it “little Rome” because of the abundance of religious orders, churches and native saints.
Krakow’s history rivals that of any other major European city as an international crossroads. The flat plains surrounding it and the Vistula River offered relative ease for travelers to make their way to the city walls. Spices, fabrics, precious metals and every other conceivable commercial item were traded in Krakow’s Main Square. Unfortunately, these convenient trade routes also brought a different sort of traveler—marauding invaders.
It has been said that history is to the Poles what food is to the French. They are a people who know tragedy, invasion, triumph, miracles and beauty—sometimes all in the same event. Throughout Krakow there are reminders of the difficult days of centuries gone by.
Today, the Main Square is filled with musicians playing for zlotys (Polish currency), upscale international retailers and Polish restaurants and bakeries. The centuries-old Cloth Hall and the tiny gem of a church, St. Wojciech’s, sit underneath the shadow of the Church of St. Mary. Known commonly as the Mariacki, it is one of the oldest churches in Poland. From the church’s bell tower a trumpeter plays a tune that stops mid-note to commemorate the arrow that silenced the brave trumpeter assigned to the night watch, warning all the Mongolian invaders in 1241 AD. To the uninitiated the tune sounds benign enough, but to those who know the history, it is a reminder, on the hour, every hour of the day, of just one occasion when Krakow suffered great devastation and woe.
Karol Wojtyla and his father moved to Krakow at what was likely the worst possible time in all of Polish history—just prior to the 1939 invasion by Nazi Germany. While Krakow was not reduced to rubble like Warsaw and Gdansk, the sheer brutality of the Nazis was on display daily—around 20 percent of the population was killed during their occupation, and ashes from those exterminated at nearby Auschwitz hung over the city.
The end of World War II ushered in a new oppressor—Soviet communism. It was marked by police brutality, a complex network of spies, the decimation of the economy and attempts to eliminate or at least discredit the Catholic Church. The net effect was to give the Polish population the impression that it was always being watched and that no one was to be trusted.
Throughout his life Wojtyla worked tirelessly and cleverly to find ways to create free space for those hemmed in by the all-seeing state. Among his efforts were the Rhapsodic Theatre, where he and his fellow actors ensured that Polish culture lived on through the stage. He later gathered young people together on hiking trips where trust was established and friendships—even marriages—were made. And he found a way to build a church in the Soviet-conceived town-without-a-church against the pressure of the most ardent bureaucrats and party bosses.
And then, out of the darkness, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, left his beloved city in 1978 to ascend to the papacy, with Communism still in full swing and the Cold War smoldering. From there he was able to accomplish the unimaginable—to assist in the toppling of Communism.
In spite of, or perhaps because of these crucibles in Krakow—the jackboot of Nazism and the hammer and sickle of the Soviets—Wojtyla was prepared not only to liberate his beloved city but to bring authentic liberty—grounded in the truth—to the whole world.
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and was the Rome Bureau Chief of Zenit’s English Edition. She is the author of Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide to Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church and co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints; A Pilgrim’s Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia.