John Paul II: "Poland's Pope"
March 15, 2012
Karol Wojtyla is a national hero in Poland. He was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a city just outside of Krakow in southern Poland. He features prominently in the Polish historical narrative of the late seventies and eighties as leading resistance to the communist regime. The leader of Solidarity, the famous trade union that opposed the communist party in Poland, Lech Walesa, named Karol Wojtyla as “the paramount champion of freedom.” Walesa credited Wojtyla with sparking interest in the Solidarity movement, leading to a membership ten million strong that came together to agitate for free elections and vote the communist party out of Poland in 1989. In 2004, Wojtyla was awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work against communism.
Despite Karol Wojtyla’s superstar status in Poland, many Americans may not recognize his name, even after reading about his accomplishments. In fact, Karol Wojtyla is better known as Pope John Paul II.
Across the world, John Paul II is widely respected, but the Polish attitude towards John Paul II is bordering on an obsession. Everywhere I go in Poland, there’s something touched by John Paul II. Here in Krakow where I am studying, the house he lived in as archbishop of Krakow is now a museum. While he was archbishop of Krakow, he also taught at the Catholic University of Lublin in eastern Poland, which is now called The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin.
In the main square of his hometown of Wadowice, there’s a larger than life statue of the Pope, with holy water springing from the ground beneath his feet. In Wroclaw, the Pope is immortalized in a stained glass window in a church where he once gave a speech. Every church in Poland has at least one portrait of the Virgin Mary, and every important church has a portrait of the Virgin Mary wearing a golden crown placed on her head by John Paul II, accompanied by photos of this event.
Karol Wojtyla is still alive, not only in name and image throughout Poland, but also in the minds of the Polish people. My roommate here, who is a first generation American of Polish descent, summed up the general attitude in Poland towards Karol Wojtyla’s selection as Pope: “that was the best time in Polish history, ever.”
After over a century of partition, where Poland was wiped off the map of Europe from 1772 to 1919, the horrors of war and genocide, and communist repression, the rise of a Pole to the highest office in the Catholic Church represents the resurrection of Poland in the historical narrative. Of course, the Pope is supposed to represent all Catholics, but there is a very strong sentiment in Poland that John Paul II is “our Pope.” Under any circumstances, a Polish Pope would have been a huge deal in Poland—90% of the country is Catholic.
However, John Paul II’s connection to Poland’s political history elevates him even further; he is at once a spiritual and secular hero. Perhaps in future generations, farther removed from the struggles of the twentieth century, when no one alive will remember World War II and the Holocaust or life under communism, Karol’s star won’t shine quite as bright. But as long as Polish society remains haunted by the experience of communism, the Catholic Church and John Paul II will retain their exalted positions in Polish society.