An Irishman's Diary


Last week it took St Oliver Plunkett, the plane, two hours and 10 minutes to fly from Dublin to Pope John Paul II Airport in Krakow, Poland. It took Oliver Plunkett, the man, nearly three centuries to be canonised following his death in 1681.

That was a long wait compared to Sister Faustina Kowalska, a nun of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy in Krakow, who died in 1938, aged 33, and whom Pope John Paul II canonised in 2000.

Among those on Flight EI 368 from Dublin was Piotr, a 47-year-old mathematics graduate from the University of Krakow who was working as a labourer in Dublin, and four young men in their early 20s going home for Christmas having worked as fruit pickers in north Co Dublin. An Irish couple from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, two women from Dublin and a trio of lads from Co Laois were also on the flight.

None of them had been to Poland before. They said they were making the trip because of the cheap fare being offered by Aer Lingus (€58 return, taxes included) and to "do Auschwitz".

Ireland and Poland have many similarities - both are strongly identified with the Catholic faith; both have known centuries of oppression at the hands of stronger neighbours - but the contrasts between the countries may be more notable than the likenesses.

In 1937 Ireland adopted a written Constitution in which the special place of the Catholic Church was recognised.

In 1573, more than 50 years before the birth of Oliver Plunkett, Poland removed the Catholic Church as the dominant religion from its constitution. Partly because of this legislation, by the end of the 18th century half of all the Jews in the world lived in Poland.

The young men who had worked as fruit pickers in Co Dublin were returning home to a country where the official unemployment rate is over 17 per cent, but may be much higher, and where the minimum wage is around €1.35 an hour. Ireland boasts the lowest employment rate in Europe (4.2 per cent) and the minimum legal wage per hour is €7.60. Estimates vary, but between 60,000 and 100,000 Poles have come to work in Ireland since Poland joined the EU in 2004. When asked, the fruit pickers all said that yes, of course they had gone to Mass every Sunday in Co Dublin. In Ireland it is estimated that in urban areas fewer than 40 per cent of Catholics attend Sunday mass. In Krakow last week at 6.30 mass on Wednesday morning in the church of the Dominican fathers, it was standing room only. Eighty per cent of the congregation was aged less than 30.

The temperature outside was minus four. The church lacked any heating and most people held unlit candles.

The church fell into darkness awaiting the arrival of a lighted candle to begin the Mass.

The light spread throughout the church and the sung Mass began. An hour later, 10 minutes after the Mass had ended, dozens of young people remained in their places.

In Ireland, the Penal Laws of 1695 turned the Catholic Church into an underground movement. Even under the Soviets, in Poland the church never went underground. Krakow is renowned for its churches.

The Royal Cathedral on Wawel Hill is part of the royal palace (Krakow was Poland's capital city until 1596). In the crypt chapel beside the royal tombs, the young Karol Wojtyla said his first Mass in 1946.

The cathedral, an amalgam of Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine architecture, is the seat of Krakow's archbishop, a position held by Cardinal Wojtyla until his election in 1978 as Pope John Paul II.

The Nazis established Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps one-and-a-half hour's drive west of Krakow. Both are preserved as World Heritage sites and are seen each year by half a million visitors.

Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazis killed more than 3.5 million Polish citizens of Jewish descent. Ireland remained neutral during the second World War.

The ladies from Dublin and the couple from Dunshaughlin also said that they were coming to Krakow in order "to shop". Prices in Poland are generally less than half of what they are in Ireland.

A taxi hired for two hours on a sight-seeing trip charged the equivalent of €9. The consumer culture so evident in Ireland's ever-bigger shopping temples has not reached Poland.

One of the most ambitious construction projects completed in Krakow in recent years was the Basilica of Divine Mercy, south of the River Vistula, consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Last week, on Thursday afternoon over 200 people were at Mass in the basilica.

An enormous modern building that cost over $20 million and extends to 1600 square meters, the basilica stands beside Sister Faustina's convent and overlooks a hinterland of Soviet-era apartment blocks.

As a young man John Paul II was strongly influenced by Sister Faustina, who believed herself to be the conduit of a number of messages from God, among them Prayers for Divine Mercy.

At her canonisation in April 2000, John Paul II established the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He died in Rome earlier this year, on Saturday April 2nd at 9.37pm, two hours and 23 minutes before Divine Mercy Sunday.