Celebrating the saint from Wadowice

Many Poles feel a spiritual mark left by their pope but schisms in both church and society now go unrefereed


In the main square of Wadowice, a small town near Cracow, a woman hands out leaflets for the famous local confectioner’s behind the church. Its speciality: kremówka, calorie-rich cream cakes beloved by Karol Józef Wojtyla.

He was born here in 1920 and died in Rome, 85 years later, after almost 27 years as Pope John Paul II. When he is made a saint tomorrow, lucky leaflet-holders in Wadowice can celebrate with five kremów kas for the price of four.

His hometown, caught off guard in 2005, has scrubbed up beautifully for the canonisation – and the million visitors who now visit annually. Around the repaved square before the church, flags in papal and Polish colours flutter between yellow and white blooms in flower baskets.

To the right of the church is Wadowice’s pride and joy: a new museum to Pope John Paul II in his former home. After four years and €6 million, the immersive museum takes visitors through renovated rooms once occupied by the Wojtyla family: a drawing room containing a table with a green velvet tablecloth and crockery in a display case; a spotless blue-and-white kitchen with a coal-burning stove. A group of older Poles shuffles through, inspecting everything closely. “All that’s missing,” says Malgorzata Michalak, a tram driver, “is holy water in the font.”

Plaques with quotes from the former resident are everywhere. One, on his old bed, recalls the young Karol waking up in the night and seeing his widower father kneeling in prayer. “We never talked about vocations,” the pope wrote later, “but this was like a home seminary.”

As a young seminarian Fr Jacek Pietruszka, deputy director of the museum, met the pope many times. He hopes museum visitors will learn more about the private man and his deep faith. “I wouldn’t want people to live in the past, but it would be good if they would live by his standards,” he says.

It was always going to be a challenge to normalise a man so many idealise and even idolise. The museum uses every medium in the multimedia arsenal to appeal to the senses – as well as the heart. With little about his papal teachings and even less about his complex character, though, visitor groups are instead funnelled through a strict veneration route over four floors. Wojtyla’s life is presented as an inevitable, ever-ascending road; your arrival in the Vatican room is accompanied by euphoric mood music.

In display cases visitors can take in papal skis and socks; soil from all papal destinations, including Knock; a half-eaten host from Christmas 2004. The most eye-catching exhibit, in an illuminated window in the floor, is the gun – “Browning HP Cal 9 mm Serial No: 76C23953”, reads the caption – that Mehmet Ali Agca used to shoot the pope in 1981.

The visit climaxes in a dark room where, as a recorded heartbeat throbs over loudspeakers, visitors are instructed to reflect on the pope’s decline and death. The fateful hour is marked on a stopped clock from the papal apartment, on display in a glass case. “Quite a lot of people cry,” says Mateusz, a tour guide, “but I think it’s good when people react to how they feel.”

It’s clear that most Poles still feel undimished love and respect for their pope almost a decade after he died. Then, many church watchers predicted turbulent times ahead for the Polish church without a moral authority in Rome to mediate in disputes back home.

That has come to pass, with a battle rolling on between secular liberals and arch-conservative Catholics. “Each camp could take what they wanted from Pope John Paul’s teaching,” says Artur Sporniak, an editor at Tygodnik Powszechny , an influential Catholic intellectual weekly published in Cracow. “He supported progressive dialogue, but he was also critical of what he called the ‘culture of death’.”

Alongside allegations of rebel priests and sadistic nuns came the forced resignation of Stanislaw Wielgus as archbishop of Warsaw, in 2007, when documents suggested that he had worked as a communist informer.

The liberal-conservative battle became serious in December when Polish bishops warned their flock of “principles completely contrary to reality and . . . human nature” in which people “choose whether they are a man or a woman . . . and their sexual orientation”.

The cultural war over so-called gender ideology has followed, with the church blaming liberalism and moral relativism for a collapse in values and destabilised family life. It has even linked “gender ideology” to a growing spectre of clerical child abuse that has seen 27 priests charged since 2001.

Archbishop Jozef Michalik of Warsaw has linked abuse to divorce, pornography and the “ideology of gender” that promotes same-sex marriage and adoption. Children from broken homes who were “looking for love” were drawn to abusive priests, he suggested.

Outraged liberals have accused the church of inventing a term and an enemy “just as it did previously with witches and people who believed the earth was round”.

The urban-rural and clerical-secular cracks are widening in Polish society, but the church has not collapsed. Attendance is declining, but slowly, and bishops have embraced tomorrow’s canonisation as a chance to demonstrate that their institution remains structurally sound.

Recent debates elsewhere – Pope John Paul’s record on dealing with corruption and clerical abuse, or senior cardinals’ doubts about the canonisation – have not been reported here.

Instead the entire Polish media, even the left-liberal Gazeta Wyborcza , is in veneration mode, feeding an inexhaustible appetite for stories about the late pope and miracles attributed to him.

These weekend Poland is, at face value, as Catholic as it was in the postwar years, when staunch church opposition to communism made a strong faith a cornerstone of patriotic Polish identity. It is, to the casual observer, as Catholic as when a Polish pope served as a beacon of hope during communism, and of consolation in the early, uncertain days of market capitalism.

The deep spiritual mark Pope John Paul left on his countrymen lingers, but it is deeply private and impossible to see. Far more obvious are the souvenirs and sprawling concrete shrines – with two alone in Cracow, one boasting a vial of the pope’s blood.

“Books about miracles sell best,” says Sporniak of the Tygodnik Powszechny weekly. “Critical debate of the pope’s writings and teachings is only ever superficial, and after his canonisation even this may become even more difficult.”

Back in Wadowice, 20 year-old Justyna hands out leaflets for a restaurant and watches the crowds milling before the papal museum. As in 2005, she expects the Pope John Paul hype will vanish quickly after tomorrow. This time, however, she isn’t sure it will ever return.

“The canonisation is a good thing, as John Paul left a lot of teachings behind, but the whole event is way too big,” she says.

“Many younger people are turned off by the church scandals and the devotional, adoring worshipping style of the older generations. Religion as we knew it in Poland is dying.”

Nine years after his death, tomorrow’s canonisation of Pope John Paul will, for many Poles, be a moment of emotional closure. Polish Catholicism will, in future, hinge less on the faith of – and in – their holy father, the saint from Wadowice, and more on the words and actions of a bishop from Buenos Aires.

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