It was in the midst of the greatest darkness the human race has seen — the agony of Auschwitz in Poland and the tortured passion of the Polish people — that God has brought the greatest light
A visit to Poland opens the pilgrim’s eyes to what might be called “The Passion of Poland.” Caught between the superpowers of Russia and Germany, and with no natural borders to the east or west, the Polish people have seen their broad, fertile country become the battleground of warring nationalistic, political and economic ideologies. After the Napoleonic wars, the nation of Poland disappeared — swallowed up by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Finally, after the First World War, an independent Poland was established, only to be occupied first by the Nazis and then Soviet Russia.
We are familiar with the Nazi cruelty to Jews, but few are aware that the German fascists also considered the Poles to be fit only for extermination. Under the Nazi occupation, about two million ethnic Poles were slaughtered. Millions more were expelled from German-controlled areas to slave labor camps. The population existed on starvation rations. Tens of thousands of intellectuals and cultural leaders disappeared, and when the Nazis were done, the Soviets swept in and continued the holocaust. Some 325,000 Poles were deported to Russia while tens of thousands were executed outright or killed through starvation, disease, torture, imprisonment and forced labor.
At the start of it all in 1938, young Karol Wojtyla traveled with his father from his boyhood home of Wadowice to begin his university career in Cracow. The next year the Nazis invaded. They closed the university, executing its leading lights and driving the remaining professors underground. Karol Wojtyla was forced to get a job, first in a stone quarry, then in a chemical plant. Under the Nazi occupation fear was a part of every moment. The Gestapo could sweep through and detain anyone for the slightest offense, shoot them in the street, send them to the firing squad or ship them to the concentration camp. The Catholic Church was a special target. Priests were murdered, churches were restricted, church schools and seminaries were closed.
It was in this atmosphere that Karol Wojtyla heard the call to the priesthood and began to train in secret. After his ordination he served as a priest, philosophy professor and bishop always under the watchful eye of the Soviet Big Brother.
Meanwhile, Divine Providence was at work in a hidden way. In 1905 a daughter was born to a Polish peasant family. Third of 10 children, Helena Kowalska longed to be a nun. Having just three years of schooling, she finally joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in Warsaw, taking the name Faustina. Her short life was spent in menial labor in the convent, but she received a vision of the resurrected Lord we now know as the Divine Mercy image. Sister Faustina died in Cracow in 1938, the same year the young Karol Wojtyla arrived in the city and the year before the Nazi invasion. The stone quarry where he worked was just a few hundred yards from the convent cemetery where Sister Faustina was buried.
Faustina had not only had a vision of Jesus, but he told her to paint a picture of what she had seen and spread the devotion to his Divine Mercy around the world and to make sure the Sunday after Easter would be celebrated by the whole church worldwide as Divine Mercy Sunday. How was a semi-illiterate kitchen worker supposed to accomplish such a thing? When the devotion was suppressed by the Vatican after the Second World War, the project seemed doomed.
But then 40 years after her death, in 1978, the young student who worked in the stone quarry so near her convent was elected pope. He had already begun a campaign to promote the devotion of his Polish sister. In 1993 he declared her Blessed, canonizing her seven years later.
Today Nazism and Communism are dead, and on the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Cracow there stands a huge basilica honoring St Faustina. Just across the hillside, on the site of the old stone quarry, a new basilica is being completed to honor Pope St. John Paul the Great. The two basilicas are linked architecturally and with a footpath and bridge.
The basilicas stand not only to house the millions of pilgrims who honor the two saints, but as a permanent witness to the triumph of the providence of God. It was in the midst of the greatest darkness the human race has seen — the agony of Auschwitz in Poland and the tortured passion of the Polish people, that God has brought the greatest light. The passion of the Polish people, like another crucifixion, took mankind into the depths, only to rise again. It is from that death and rising that the world has been given the Divine Mercy image, for in the image Christ steps out of the darkness of death, reminding the whole world that darkness and death can never overcome the light and life of Christ.