Your London correspondent has been busy in Poland, making a new programme for EWTN exploring the life of the great soon-to-be-saint John Paul. The programme will feature on EWTN in due course, in association with the forthcoming canonisation. And I’m not going to write anything about it yet, because it’s all under wraps…but it is looking good and I think will work well.
We are all going to have to take note of what is happening in the Church in Poland over the next few years, with World Youth Day coming up in Krakow, and with Poland’s sons and daughters beginning to make an impact on the world’s Catholic scene in all sorts of ways.
For many of us in Western countries, the very word “Poland” continues to conjure up thoughts of a brave nation struggling against Nazism and Communism, and then seeing the final triumph of freedom in the last decade of the 20th century. We think of young people gathering to sing and cheer Pope John Paul on his epic journey home in 1979, we think of Solidarity and the fight for free trade unions, of barbed wire and Communist slogans about Marx and Lenin, of the Gulag and the secret police, and vile things done by interrogators in prison cells, and the horror of it all.
I first visited Poland back in the days of Communism, and I remember the lack of basic goods , the bleak shop windows, the everyday discomforts – and the contrast with today is so gigantic that it is hard now adequately to describe how different it all is. Krakow teems with life, with restaurants and tourists and glamorous shops.. At night, it’s all neon lights and crowds of young people filling pubs and bars. Traffic curls in and out of the city on vast roads, vast advertising hoardings promote every sort of luxury…it is a great and busy modern city of the sort found across Europe.
What makes it unique, of course, even in Poland, is its rich and royal history: kings honoured in Wawel Cathedral, magnificent churches of great beauty, an ancient university packed with students as it has been for centuries. Krakow has all sorts of special traditions from the enchanting bugle-call that echoes hourly from St Mary’s church and ends abruptly at the point where the original bugler was slain by a Tartar’s arrow, to the tale of the dragon and the Vistula river (and you can still visit the dragon’s cave and watch as flames leap out of the great beast’s mouth).
And it is the city of John Paul – his monument is everywhere. A statue stands by the main door of Wawel cathedral, every church carries a portrait or a mural or some great memorial to him, his picture hangs in the great window above the main entrance in the Archbishop’s Palace from which he addressed the crowds as Pope. He is loved and honoured here, and it’s a living and enduring love – he is no folk hero but a man whose message and teachings still resonate, and whose personal courage rings true in the story of a nation which has known so much suffering.
What of the Church in Poland? Churches across the country are still full several times each Sunday, and in Krakow there are good numbers at weekday Masses too. Vast crowds take part in processions and pilgrimages at Kalwaria and Czestowhowa. Wayside shrines along the roads have fresh flowers and candles. You see young nuns and priests hurrying about, rather as you do in Rome.
There are some slightly worrying trends. Something about Jewish people came up in conversation, and there was a disconcerting – and frankly worrying and nasty – evidence of anti-Semitism. Ugh. It is rather horrible that this sort of rubbish can linger in the country where the Jews have suffered so much. Thank God for John Paul’s clear affirmation of the evil of anti-Semitism: but did the Polish people listen?
The image of the West – so long a centre of longing and with fashions to be adopted and music shared – is now changing, as groups of drunken British youth arrive to celebrate “stag nights” and to shout and vomit and make themselves unpleasant. Also, as historical events are seen in a new perspective, the message that “Poland was betrayed by the West in 1945” has inevitably taken root – not without reason given the cruel ruthless decisions made at Yalta – and is too easily linked with all sorts of weird conspiracy theories.
In a country where the mainstream media told lies for decades, there is a culture of rumour and scare-stories that will be hard to eradicate. Almost any great event seems not to be taken at face value: this is understandable but worrying.
But there are great possibilities for Poland’s future. As a nation, it has long looked outward – thousands of Poles emigrated to America, Australia, and elsewhere from the 19th century onwards, there have been and still are thousands of Polish missionaries working in Africa and Asia, and the Poles have traditionally never been inward-looking or mentally cramped. This is a nation of scientists, artists, musicians, writers, teachers…the intellectual vigour and rigour of John Paul (who spoke at least eight languages fluently including Latin in which he wrote many of his essays), is echoed in the lives of a great many other Poles. The Church is strong, and teaches great truths with vigour and with a sense of zest: it emerged robustly from the Communist era and John Paul’s message brought it across into the new Millenium with joy. The young need the sense of belonging to a worldwide Church while being deeply rooted in their own Polish heritage. World Youth Day in Krakow will go well, and will be a worthy tribute to the Krakow Archbishop, Karol Woytila, who went on to become Poland’s greatest son.