John Paul II: "Poland's Pope"

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 as leading resistance to the communist regime in the late 1970s and 1980s. Because of his role as leader of Solidarity, the famous trade union that opposed the communist party in Poland, Lech Walesa named Wojtyla “the paramount champion of freedom.” Walesa credited Wojtyla with sparking interest in the Solidarity movement, leading to a membership of 10 million people who came together to agitate for free elections and vote the Communist Party out of power in 1989. In 2004, Wojtyla was awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work against communism.

Despite Wojtyla’s superstar status in Poland, many Americans may not recognize his name, even after reading about his accomplishments. This is because Karol Wojtyla is better known as Pope John Paul II.

John Paul II is widely respected around the world, but the Polish attitude towards him borders on obsession. Everywhere I go in Poland, there’s always something touched by John Paul II. Here in Krakow, the house he lived in as archbishop of Krakow is now a museum. During this time, 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 stained glass in a church where he once gave a speech. Every church in Poland has at least one portrait of the Virgin Mary, but every important church has a portrait of the Virgin Mary wearing a golden crown placed on her head by John Paul II.

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 Wojtyla’s selection as Pope: “That was the best time in Polish history, ever.”

After over a century of partition, the horrors of war and genocide, and communist repression, the rise of a Pole to the highest office of the Catholic Church is seen as the resurrection of Poland in the historical narrative of the people. 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 for the people: 90 percent of the country is Catholic.

However, John Paul II’s special role in Poland’s political history elevates him even further in the collective memory of the country; he is at once a spiritual and secular hero. Perhaps in generations further 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.
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