For the Catholic tourist with an interest in history, Poland is an attractive destination, home to world-famous Marian shrines, illuminating museums, and sites that witnessed some of the most tragic – and inspiring – events of the twentieth century. A new addition to Poland’s offering for history lovers is Warsaw’s Mt 5:14 Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński, which combines an interactive exhibit with historic relics and artistic installations to tell the story of two of the last century’s great sons of the Church.
A votive church two centuries in the making
The Mt 5:14 Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński is located in the Temple of Divine Providence in the Wilanów district of Warsaw. The most important site in that section of the city is the late seventeenth Baroque Wilanów Palace, modeled after Versailles and built for King John III Sobieski, best known for defeating the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. More than 80 percent of Warsaw’s buildings were reduced to rubble during the Second World War, yet Wilanów Palace is one of the Polish capital’s few architectural gems to survive the war intact.
Construction of the church began as a votive after Poland adopted the May 3rd Constitution in 1791. King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, the last king of Poland, was an enlightened monarch who founded Europe’s first ministry of education and sought counsel from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He also adopted the world’s second written constitution. Even Karl Marx wrote about the May 3rd Constitution: “The history of the world has never seen another example of such nobility of the nobility.”
Unlike in France, for instance, the Polish Enlightenment was not hostile to religion; two of its leading luminaries, Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj, were Catholic priests. Thus, the Polish Parliament decided to build a church funded by the state to thank God for the constitution. In keeping with the architectural trends of the era, the church was to be built in a neoclassical design, its entrance guarded by Roman columns and its roof topped with a big dome.
In 1795, however, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria; thus, construction of the temple would be postponed for two hundred years. After the fall of communism in 1989, the Polish Church supported the construction of the temple as a votive not only for the May 3rd Constitution but also the victory during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the rise of Solidarity and Poland’s peaceful transition to democracy, and the life and witness of St. John Paul II and Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. Construction of the shrine was completed in 2016, although Masses and other religious events had been held there for numerous years.
The imposing church’s design is ultra-modern; while bearing unmistakable Neoclassical elements, it looks like it was designed by a student of Oscar Niemeyer. Naysayers liken its appearance to a lemon squeezer.
In front of the church stand two slabs from the former Berlin Wall, a gift pregnant with symbolism donated by Rolf Nikel, the former German ambassador to Poland, on the centennial of St. John Paul II’s birth in 2020. One slab symbolizes John Paul’s immense contribution to the peaceful fall of Iron Curtain, while the other expresses gratitude to Wyszyński for his efforts to Polish-German reconciliation just two decades after the end of World War II.
Also in front of the church is a khachkar, a beautiful, unmistakably Levantine carved Armenian memorial cross, a gift from Armenia’s ambassador to Poland to commemorate John Paul II’s friendship with the Armenian nation and his efforts to bring the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches together.
Of the two subjects of the museum, Blessed Cardinal Wyszyński is of course less familiar to American readers. Beatified last year, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński indomitably defended the rights and sovereignty of the Polish nation during his service as the nation’s primate from 1948 to 1981. The communist regime responded by imprisoning him in remote, undisclosed locations from 1953 until the Khrushchev-era thaw in 1956. While the communists tried to alienate the Polish people from their Christian heritage, Wyszyński worked – and succeeded – to strengthen the Poles’ faith.
Consequently, he is commonly referred to as the “Primate of the Millennium” in Poland. Many Poles see him as a Moses-like figure who led them across the communist desert for (slightly more than) forty years.
The permanent exhibit in the Mt 5:14 Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński combines traditional and electronic elements, yet nothing in it seems out of place. There are plenty of relics: at the beginning of the exhibit, we see John Paul II’s white papal cassock next to Wyszyński’s red cardinal’s cassock against a white and red backdrop, unmistakably evoking the Polish flag. Elsewhere in the exhibit, we see John Paul II’s zucchetto, St. Paul VI’s first crosier used during his installation Mass as Archbishop of Milan, and the belongings of priests martyred in concentration camps. We also see a papal throne and mitre; while it is not labelled, judging by the fact that it is in a theater-like room that shows on loop footage from John Paul II’s famous speech on Warsaw’s Victory Square (“Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth”) in 1979 we can assume it was used during that pivotal Mass.
Additionally, there are plenty of interactive screens where visitors can read, for example, about the First World War and President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points (the thirteenth of which postulated the creation of an independent Polish state with access to the Baltic), the Holocaust, or the October Revolution and Lenin’s and Stalin’s bloody persecutions of religion as well as watch footage of interviews with people who knew the museum’s protagonists.
This is helpful particularly to non-Polish visitors who can better understand what dramatic events shaped the lives of Wyszyński and Wojtyła, and how they in turn impacted history. They can also see how Poland was at the very center of twentieth century history.
One missed opportunity is the room devoted to John Paul II’s travels. This part of the exhibit showcases his numerous pilgrimages to his homeland. Of all the 104 trips the pontiff made outside Italy, unquestionably his first visit to Poland had the greatest geopolitical consequences. The exhibit does showcase this, reminding the visitor of how this led to the formation of Solidarity and later fall of communism. Yet so many other of his visits were historic. His pilgrimages to Marcos’ Philippines, Duvalier’s Haiti, Stroessner’s Paraguay, or Pinochet’s Chile are credited with hastening peaceful democratic change there. Meanwhile, John Paul’s visits brought hope to many countries facing civil war or military occupation, such as El Salvador (1983), East Timor (1989), or Croatia (1994). Unfortunately, the museum omits mention of his non-Polish pilgrimages.
Part of the exhibit is devoted to Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Polish clergy. We see a photograph of the smiling 1938 ordination class from the Poznan seminary lazing on their summer holiday. We quickly learn that of those thirty-nine ordinands, twenty-six were sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where thirteen were killed.
The authors of the exhibit deserve kudos for responding to slanderous myths about Cardinal Wyszyński that have appeared in some liberal circles. The Polish émigré historian Jan T. Gross has done important research on painful chapters in Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and immediately afterwards. However, his writing often contains unfair generations, and in one of his books, he accuses Wyszyński of anti-Semitism.
On one screen, we can watch the testimony of Esther Grinberg, a Polish-Israeli Holocaust survivor, who recalls pretending to be a Catholic and attending a Warsaw Mass celebrated by Wyszyński. According to her, during the homily, Wyszyński implored his congregation to help Jews fleeing from the burning Warsaw Ghetto. There is also the video testimony of Jadwiga Karwowska, who as a child was living in the community for the blind where Wyszyński was a chaplain and recalls him hiding an entire Jewish family. In this part of the exhibit, we can also read an excerpt of a 1976 homily he gave at the All Saints’ Church in Warsaw, once on the site of the occupied city’s wartime ghetto. In this quotation, Wyszyński calls the notion of enclosing people based on their ethnicity into a ghetto “Satanic.”
On a similar note, we learn about Wojtyła’s numerous Jewish childhood friends in Wadowice, which decades later would have a major impact on Catholic-Jewish relations.
In one room, titled “Dialogue?”, we see two screens provocatively facing one another. On one, we see Wyszyński preaching love for one’s persecutors, while on the other Władysław Gomułka, head of Poland’s Communist Party from 1953 to 1970, rails against the Church.
Visitors to the museum are guided by artistic installations, austere but meaningful. In the section devoted to John Paul II’s pontificate, we see a large boat, symbolizing the Barque of Peter. While this might not be the most original symbolism, it is appropriate. The enormity of the boat perhaps recalls the momentousness of this pontificate.
Elsewhere, there is a room housing a grove of wooden Roman columns, many of which have been dislocated from their bases. This symbolizes the attempts by the Third Reich and the communists to uproot the Polish nation from its religious and national identity as well as the Kampinos Forest outside Warsaw, which for numerous reasons played a key role in Wyszyński’s life and vocation. The forest is also the home of the Laski community for blind children, started by the blind Franciscan nun Mother Róża Czacka (who was beatified along with Wyszyński and whose life is also showcased in the museum, albeit briefly), to which Wyszyński served as a chaplain. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Wyszyński aided many Polish partisans fleeing to the forest. The forest is also where Palmiry, the execution site of more than two thousand Poles by the Germans during World War II, is located.
Wyszyński and Wojtyła
The museum is not only seamless in its use of diverse forms; it also presents the interplay between Stefan Wyszyński and Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II. In the part of the exhibit dealing with Poland’s wartime fate, we learn about Wojtyła’s participation in the underground Rhapsodic Theater as well as Wyszyński’s ministry as a chaplain to the Polish underground. Elsewhere, we learn about both men’s participation in the Second Vatican Council, particularly then-Archbishop Wojtyła’s contribution to Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
In a room devoted to Jasna Góra, Poland’s most important Marian shrine, we learn about the great devotion both men had to the Black Madonna. We hear a recording of John Paul leading the faithful in praying the rosary and can read how Wyszyński entrusted the Polish nation to Mary, as well as how indebted the Marian devotion of both was to St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.
The main weakness of the exhibit is that not all of it is bilingual; some Polish placards lack an English translation. This does not affect this native speaker of Polish, but it can limit the number of international visits. I asked the museum’s staff about this, and they said that they are working on this.
Yet I nonetheless encourage all visitors to Warsaw, particularly those with an interest in history, to pay a visit to the Warsaw’s Mt 5:14 Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński. The institution successfully demonstrates how the Christian witness of two great men helped to create a better world. As Ukraine has shown that wars of aggression are not a thing of the past in post-World War II Europe, their examples are all the more relevant.
If learning about the lives of Wyszyński and Wojtyła while visiting the museum inspires you, the Temple of Divine Providence contains the relics of more than a dozen Polish saints and blessed, including Wyszyński and John Paul, on display, so you don’t have to go far to pray through their intercession.
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