A nation’s favourite son: John Paul II’s legacy in a divided Poland
Both sides of the political spectrum claim the late pope as their own
John Paul II’s legacy: a 15-metre-tall statue depicting Pope John Paul II overlooks the city of Czestochowa, in southern Poland. At a moment when Poland finds itself torn by political conflicts that are cast as an existential fight for the country’s soul, the pope’s legacy is just one more battleground. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II’s legacy: a statue of the pope in Cracow, Poland. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II’s legacy: inside the Family House of the Holy Father John Paul II Museum. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II: the gun used by Mehmet Ali Agca in an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, displayed at the Family House of the Holy Father John Paul II Museum. Photgraph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II’s legacy: the room where the pope was born. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II’s legacy: a man praying at a chapel, before the blood-stained robes worn by the pope when he was nearly killed by an assassin in 1981. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II: the Rev Jakub Gil, a former student of the pope. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
John Paul II: The monastery of Carmelite Friars, which holds a relic of the scapular worn by the pope. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times
On his knees, head bowed before bloodstained robes, a Polish man is deep in prayer. He is worshipping in a chapel at the John Paul II Centre in Cracow, a sprawling complex where relics of the former pontiff are displayed, including the clothes he was wearing when nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1981.
An engineer, the man says he prefers to keep his prayers private and asks that only his first name, Wojciech, be used. But he is excited to talk about his beloved pope. “Whenever I have a problem in my life, I come here to pray,” Wojciech says.
In a nation increasingly divided, one figure can still inspire solidarity among Poles: the man born Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who, in 1978, became John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years.
The nation’s favourite son, he still looms large in Polish life more than 40 years after he was named bishop of Rome.
From a towering 15-metre-tall statue depicting the pope with outstretched hands that overlooks the city of Czestochowa, to the relics distributed to churches throughout the country – including drops of his blood in more than 100 parishes – Poland is awash in tributes to the man commonly referred to as “Our Pope”.
But at a moment when the country finds itself torn by political conflicts that are depicted by all sides as an existential battle for the nation’s soul, the legacy of John Paul II – a champion for both Poland and an integrated Europe – is the subject of dispute.
“For everyone, he remains a positive point of reference,” says Michal Luczewski, the programme director for the Centre on the Thought of John Paul II in Warsaw. “But there is a struggle over his legacy, with each side wanting to claim him as their own.”
For those on the political right, the pope is an inspiration in their battle against an increasingly secular Europe, Luczewski says.
Conservative voters, including many supporters of the governing Law and Justice party, believe they are carrying on the pope’s mission, particularly the fight against abortion – an issue that continues to be deeply divisive in this country with the most restrictive reproductive laws in Europe.
But on the other side, Poles who believe the Law and Justice party is doing great damage to the nation’s democratic institutions – including undermining the judiciary system and controlling the state news media – find forceful rebukes to the creeping authoritarianism in the life and teachings of John Paul II.
“The newest members of the democratic family, John Paul II hoped, ought to be a reminder to the older members of the family that freedom and truth, freedom and virtue, cannot be separated without doing serious damage to the democratic project,” George Weigel, the author of Witness to Hope, a biography of John Paul II, said in a recent speech in Warsaw.
“I cannot imagine that John Paul II would be entirely happy with the condition of the world’s democracies, both old and new, today,” Weigel added.
In the Poland of 2019, even the pope’s childhood can have a contested meaning: While it was steeped in Polish patriotism, it occurred in a place of pluralism.
In a story familiar to every Pole, the pope came into the world just as Poland’s status as a newly free nation was in dire jeopardy, with the Russian Red Army advancing across the country during the summer of 1920.
It was only saved, against all odds, by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who mounted a brilliant defence of Warsaw referred to as “the Miracle on the Vistula.”
“I believe Karol was given the name Jozef in a tribute to Pilsudski,” says the Rev Jacek Pietruszka, director of the Holy Father John Paul II Family Home in the ancient town of Wadowice, where the future pope was born in a modest apartment. His birthplace is now visited by some 250,000 people annually, nearly 80 per cent of them Polish.
The tour of his childhood home begins in a room dedicated to the history of the town and of its Jewish community, which then made up nearly 20 per cent of the population.
“Fundamental to the Polish spirit,” the pope wrote in Memory and Identity, his final book, which was published in 2005, the year he died, “is multiplicity and pluralism, not limitation and closure.” He remembered “a Republic embracing many nations, many cultures, many religions”.
Visitors look out of the future pope’s bedroom window at the clock on the wall of the local church, with its famous inscription: “Time flies, eternity awaits.”
It is a short walk to his former school, the hallways still lined with pictures of his papal visits. All across town, shops sell the puff pastries so beloved by the pope they are now known as Papieska Kremowka, or “papal” cream cake.
As uneventful as his youth was in Wadowice, his young adulthood was transformed by the cataclysm of World War II. Poland’s loss during the war is hard to fathom, with six million killed, including three million Jews.
John Paul, who moved to Cracow in 1938 to study acting, spent the majority of the war there as a labourer while he secretly attended a seminary school. He was ordained a priest in 1946 and named archbishop of Cracow in 1964.
In the postwar years, the Communist Party of Poland tried to control the church. The pope’s opposition to communism would become one signature of his papacy.
When John Paul first returned to Poland as pope in 1979, one million people turned out in Warsaw’s Victory Square to hear his call for solidarity.
“Be not afraid,” he told the crowds.
Months later, a labour movement in a shipyard in Gdansk planted the seeds for a nonviolent revolution that would lead to the end of Communist rule a decade later.
But in the following years, John Paul lamented the growing secularism in Western Europe and feared what would come from democracies unmoored from a moral foundation.
The Rev Jakub Gil, a former student of the pope, says many in conservative circles in Poland share John Paul’s concerns, and feel as if their faith is under siege from outside forces.
“The threat comes from the West, and it is one that ridicules Polish identity,” says Fr Gil, standing outside the Basilica of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wadowice, where John Paul was baptised.
The idea of “tolerance” espoused by leaders in Brussels, he says, castigates those who speak out against homosexuality or abortion as narrow-minded.
“They treat Poles like children,” he says.
But in a Europe where nationalist forces are pushing back against Brussels and threatening to splinter the bloc, the pope can impart “important lessons about patriotism for today”, Weigel, the pope’s biographer, said in his speech in Warsaw.
The pope’s patriotism, Weigel said, “was not chauvinistic or xenophobic. It was not closed in on itself, but open to those who were ‘other’.”
“Poland, sometimes betrayed and too often ignored by the West, was,” he insisted, “woven into the tapestry of Europe.”
Beata Borowka, who is tending flowers outside St Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw, says the pope was saddened during his lifetime to witness the fading of the solidarity that had once helped the country win its freedom.
“Poland today is once again divided,” she says. “It seems that history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.” – New York Times (Joanna Berendt contributed reporting)