by Joanna Bogle
Recently I visited Poland. I first visited Krakow back in the 1980s. Poland was under a Communist government then, and had been since the Second World War. But no one in the ruling government circles or in the bureaucracy believed in Marxism and the ordinary workers certainly didn’t. Everything seemed shabby and dreary buildings with peeling paint, shops that didn’t have the things people needed.
What a difference to return in 2012. You fly in to John Paul Airport, and it’s all gleaming and efficient. The city sparkles it really is one of the most glorious in Europe and we loved sitting out in the evening sunshine in the main square, sipping coffee, with music and chatter all around, the pastel-fronted buildings, the fabulous baroque churches, the restaurants it’s all wonderful.
The young people with whom I was sharing the holiday felt very much at home. At the music academy, glorious sounds poured out from practice rooms as we mounted the stairs to enjoy a delicious (and cheap!) lunch on the roof terrace. At the Divine Mercy shrine we wrote our petitions on the sheets of paper provided, lit candles, voted the big ultramodern church architecturally uninspiring but impressive within, and squeezed into an extremely overcrowded Mass in the chapel where Sister Faustina first had her visions.
What of Polish life and culture? Is this John Paul’s Poland, a land of strong faith? Well, the churches are full, and not just on Sundays. There was a lot of weekday activity too, much of it involving the young. The student church of St. Anna, serving the University, attracts lots of them: Masses, confessions, talks, pilgrimages, projects for those in need. There were young people coming and going on the weekday morning when we visited, a priest hearing confessions, people lighting candles and praying. The shrine of Divine Mercy had plenty of visitors. Children were visiting the cathedral in school groups. A Friday morning Mass at St. Mary’s in the main square was full.
But don’t be misled, a professor from the university told me. The young know nothing of Communism, and Poland’s recent history is not of much interest to them. They enjoy life, they have their own worries about the future, and they are a bit tired of hearing about past struggles. Do they honor the memory of John Paul? Yes, he’s a national hero. And yes, they regard him as a great and holy person ... but life moves on.
Is Poland Catholic? Yes and church attendance is high. But lower than in the years of Communism and the pressures from consumerism are huge. The Poles kept the faith in tough times in the 20th century: now they and we have to cherish it amid the new challenges of the 21st. And John Paul cannot be used to shore up a Church that fails to communicate the great truths to the young: it is fairly easy to create monuments and conference centers and museums in his honor, but these will merely be a burden to the Church if the central reality of the Faith is not there.
All discussions I had in Poland about the future were realistic. One worry is the emergence of a new right-wing tendency, reviving the nasty anti-semitism that has disfigured Eastern Europe in the past. It is easy to create conspiracy theories and the Internet allows them to brew and bubble: Catholics seem particularly prone to them (think of Fatima websites that rant about freemasonic conspiracies and the real Sister Lucia being hidden in a dungeon and so on...)
There is also a worry about the over-sentimentalizing of the John Paul story: it’s true that he was a great hero but he was also a towering intellectual, a philosopher, a teacher who challenged people to think along large lines and never to resort to clichés. And Poland also has its grim share of the problems that beset all developed nations today: abortions, divorces...
But, overall, the message is bigger. It needs to be noted that over recent decades it has been Poland that has produced the most inspiring and exciting chapters of Europe’s Catholic history, and that the full impact of this is only now being digested and used to enrich the wider Church. I learned from my visit to Poland that John Paul II’s famous rallying-call “Do not be afraid” has become part of a tradition that is taught and honored. It is inscribed on statues and in stained glass depicting him. It is used by youth groups. He used the phrase in his inaugural sermon as pope, and added, “Open wide the doors of culture, of the many fields of human life and human work open wide the doors to Christ!”
Great popes have an impact that is different from the one that seemed to dominate within their own lifetimes. Saint Gregory the Great was famous for organizing substantial famine relief in Rome and the surrounding districts, and also for being an excellent administrator. Today we see him as important for his emphasis on the liturgy (Gregorian chant), and for his missionary efforts.
John Paul’s role in the fall of Communism, even his superb teaching on the Theology of the Body, may in the longer term pale beside the giant legacy he left of a renewed emphasis on Christ and on prayer, his integration of the Marian dimension into our understanding of the Church, the hugeness of his missionary zeal, and the foundation of World Youth Day.
Generations from now, children learning about the Rosary in school will get marks for knowing that the Luminous Mysteries were added at the end of the 20th century by the great John Paul, and sick people in hospital will draw comfort and inspiration from learning about how he served and struggled right to the end through a debilitating disease that finally robbed him of speech and facial movement.
In Poland this year I learned again that each new chapter of the Christian story is exciting, and should be tackled with faith. I flew back to London with plenty to think about. John Paul opened up so many doors to Christ now we must allow the Faith to surge through and bring light and hope.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio and television.
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