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As we traveled across Poland on a recent parish pilgrimage, we watched two films about Pope St. John Paul the Great. The first was Karol: The Man Who Became Pope. The second was Pope John Paul II,  starring Cary Elwes and Jon Voight. The first film concentrates on John Paul’s life up to his election to the papacy, while the second continues with Jon Voight’s astounding portrayal of the pope’s accomplishments through his decline and to his death. We watched the films as our tour bus as it made its way from Krakow to Warsaw, the beautiful countryside of Poland rolling before us.

The geographical combined with the biographical, and the geographical and biographical combined with the historical and theological. In John Paul’s life the different strands of twentieth-century European history combined in a remarkable way. As a bridge between West and East, Catholic Poland is arguably the heart of Europe, and as the heart beats within the body, so the tumultuous history and passionate faith of the Polish people beats at the heart of Europe. Karol Wojtyla captures the story and captivates the world. When the history books are written, he will emerge as one of the most powerful, passionate, and dynamic personalities of the age.

KarolWotylaAs a college student in Krakow, he was caught up in the middle of the 1939 Nazi invasion of his country. He had to study for the priesthood in secret while working in a stone quarry on the outskirts of the city. Ordained in secret, his life as a young priest and university professor was overshadowed first by the Nazi threat, and then by the oppression of the Soviet occupation of his country. Both regimes considered the Catholic authorities as their enemy, but with shrewd intelligence and determination John Paul opposed the regimes by outwitting them with Christian passive resistance. His surprise election to the throne of Peter in 1978 granted him the global audience to work behind the scenes for their eventual overthrow.

What is remarkable in the unfolding of these events is the role played by an unknown nun in Krakow. Sister Faustina Kowalska was one of ten children. Brought up in a rural hovel and poorly educated, she longed to join a religious order. Finally being accepted into the Sisters of Mercy in Krakow, she served as a kitchen servant and portress in the monastery. This simple, enclosed nun was granted visions of the resurrected Christ and told to propagate the image we now know as the Divine Mercy. What is not so well known are the remarkable connections between the poor, hidden nun and the intellectual, dynamic pope.

DivineMercySister Faustina died in her convent in the outskirts of Krakow in 1938. That same year Karol Wojtyla arrived in the city from his boyhood home in Wadowice to attend university. Two years later, the stone quarry where he worked was adjacent to Faustina’s convent. The image of the Divine Mercy carries a powerful message. The resurrected Christ steps forward from the dark background as if stepping out of the tomb. He pulls back his robe so that rays of red and white might burst forth. His other hand is raised in welcome and blessing. As an image the message is wordless and universal. Coming from the heart of Poland, the message is as poignant as it is powerful.

Being comparatively unlettered, Sister Faustina wrote her diary phonetically, and because of faulty transcription and translation, after the war, the Vatican ruled that her writings were not theologically sound, and banned the already-burgeoning devotion. But near the end of Vatican II, then-Cardinal Wojtyla launched her cause for canonization, and Pope Paul VI soon ordered a re-evaluation of Faustina, approving her writings and lifting the ban on the Divine Mercy devotion. In the year 2000, now-Pope John Paul II canonized the hidden nun of Krakow. The message and the image can now be seen in proper historical context.

During the dark second half of the twentieth century, Poland was the focus of one of the greatest horrors of humanity’s history. The Nazi invasion of Poland sparked the Second World War. The Polish people were driven from their homes, starved and oppressed first by the Nazis and then for most of the next forty years by the Soviets. Worst of all, it was in Poland that the most infamous Nazi death camps were located. It is right to ask, “Where was God in all this?”

FaustinaKowalskaThe answer is that God was with an almost illiterate nun in a convent in Krakow. When she died in 1938, God was with an unknown college student named Karol Wojtyla. The seeds of the message of God’s mercy to the world were planted in the exact place where the very heart of darkness and the very worst examples of humanity’s inhumanity were to be unleashed. God was not absent in the darkest corner of Europe, but like the seed of the crucified Christ, planted in the tomb to burst forth in victory, he was planting the seed of the Divine Mercy image in the midst of the darkness to burst forth later through the combined work of the hidden nun and the dynamic pope.

Today when you visit Krakow two great basilicas have risen in a remarkable way. A modern structure seating 5,000 people has been built in the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy convent. On Divine Mercy Sunday they  welcome hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. A few hundred yards away, on the site of the stone quarry where he worked, a new basilica honoring Pope St John Paul II is being completed. The two basilicas—one to the hidden nun and the other to the great pope—are lined up and connected by a walkway and bridge, and both are a permanent witness that the oppression, cruelty, and fear propagated by the pagan and atheistic ideologies were ultimately defeated by the power and passion of Poland.

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7 replies to this post
  1. An amazingly vibrant and strong people. Among the many who have suffered in the turbulent 20th century the Poles must be near those who have suffered most, the Nazis, the communist regime, they’re gone, Poland remains.

  2. A beautiful article. G.K. Chesterton and Professor Charles Sarolea were of the opinion that a strong Poland is necessary to prevent a German-Russian alliance which brought disaster to Europe several times in history (to mention only the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). On the other hand, there are those who think that Poland’s sovereignty is unnecessary, that Poland’s Catholicism should be “modernized,” and Poland should be a fiefdom of either Germany or Russia, or both. The battle is going on.

  3. The article is very good , but Dr. Thompson again either over-simplifies or, as with her unwarranted and below the belt criticism of Polish war hero and founder of postwar conservatism Henryk Krzeczkowski again does not give Americans an accurate representation of things.

    You are of course right that Charles Sarolea wrote a fantastic book about Poland with an equally great preface by GK Chesterton, but he also wrote an equally amazing book about Russia called “Europe’s Debt to Russia” in which he outlines the Christian piety of the Russian people and their valiant struggle to maintain a Christian order which allowed Europe to develop at peace.

    I wrote about both books quite some time ago:

    I will repeat here that you cannot understand Sarolea on Poland without Sarolea on Russia. It is like trying to understand Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy without reading the Prince.

    The battle is indeed on and it is between so-called Polish conservatives who signed the Lisbon treaty ensuring German-EU control and now want to march German troops into Poland in order to “defend Poland” from Russia and those national conservatives who want a truly free Poland without foreign soldiers and who recognize that a Christian , Orthodox and pragmatic Russia is a better friend than a Western Europe which is fast becoming an ocean of islam manned by pagans.

  4. I lived in Poland as a student in the late 1970s. I will never forget the night one of my Polish friends came to me in great joy and pride because Karol Wotyla had been named Pope. Pope John Paul II was a great man, indeed, and Poland is a unique country.

  5. Poland has indeed been used by God. Earlier King John III Sobieski led the Polish forces to break the Ottoman Seige of Vienna in 1683 and stem the Muslim invasion of Europe from the east. Looks like God has a plan.

  6. In the dark days of the 19th Century, when Poles were subjugated by Prussians and Russians, there arose Polish Messianism. Essentially it held that just as Christ had to suffer to atone for the sins of mankind, so too Poland would have to suffer, but that it would resurrect.

  7. Yes, and conservatives have been attempting to shake Poland free of messianism ever since because it is theological heresy and political insanity. No people are Christ though human suffering is often Christ-like. A political platform which embraces Christ-like suffering is suicide. Polish messianism succeeded only in sending more and more Poles to the grave in the XIXth century while reducing political liberty. Only the realism of Dmowski’s national conservatism actually allowed for the ressurection of Poland. St. John Paul had similar challenges – he had to temper the messianism of Solidarity which had brought the country to the brink of anarchy and war by 1981. Overthrowing Communism without destroying Poland was a work of magnificent statesmanship and the Pope is to be comended and emulated. As is Wyszyński.

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