John Paul II stood close to the cross for most of his life. Many people likely remember him holding, almost embracing, his cruciform crosier at an old age, noticeably burdened in pain.
His life was a lesson in redemptive suffering, a witness to hope. We all know the story. Losing his mother and brother at an early age and experiencing the violent drama of the 20th century, John Paul II was well acquainted with the Via Crucis, the way of the cross. Suffering was not a mere abstraction for him but something deeply experienced from within. After the initial heyday of his pontificate, the media soon realized that he was not going to embrace the moral, cultural revolution of the West, and they turned on him, smearing his name whenever an opportunity arose. I’m sure this brought him great suffering.
And this smear campaign continues to this day.
A couple of weeks ago, TVN24, a privately owned Polish news channel, aired the documentary Franciszkanska 3, alleging that John Paul II—as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków—tolerated and “covered up” allegations of priestly sexual abuse of minors, a tolerance he allegedly learned from his mentor, the “Polish Prince” Cardinal Adam Sapieha. And while many esteemed Polish journalists and historians have investigated the same archives as the documentary makers without finding evidence to accuse Wojtyła of wronging, the smear campaign of the Polish leftist news outlets continues on. Filip Mazurczak’s recent CWR article “The goals and lies of the Polish Left’s smear campaign against John Paul II” provides a thorough overview and response to these latest attacks in Poland on John Paul II’s legacy.
Most in the West do not have a good grasp of the political situation in former Communist countries in Central-Eastern Europe. Many former communists now embrace liberal democracy, effortlessly fitting into the new system while carrying out the smear campaign against the Church in Poland. They now work to transform Poland into the image and likeness of the secular West.
And the Church is the greatest obstacle to that goal, still being an authority for most Poles. During Communism, the Church was the only institution that could be trusted. Such authority, while not as strong today as it was decades ago, is still recognized in Poland. And this drives many liberal democrats crazy. But the Church sex abuse crisis, which first came to light in the United States during the last years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate (and now around the world), coupled with the posthumous revelations of sexual abuse by prominent clerics elevated under John Paul II, has created the perfect opportunity to pounce on John Paul II, the most representative face of the spiritual authority of the Church in Poland.
I am sure we will be seeing many more attempts in the next fews months by the Polish left to associate Wojtyła with the cover up of sex abuse. After all, a major election is happening later this year, and the left wants to oust the socially conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which often cites John Paul II as a moral authority (and sometimes portraying themselves as the good guys who John Paul II would undoubtedly support). But the attempts to destroy Poland’s love for John Paul II have not worked. Many Poles have rushed to his defense, praying for his intercession in these trying times.
I couldn’t help considering the significance of this happening during these past few weeks Lent. Which brings me to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (“Zebrzydowski’s Calvary”), the very place John Paul II asked us to pray for him after his death. There is no doubt in my mind that he wanted us to remember him in light of the Cross. I will soon be making a pilgrimage there, and I encourage many Catholics who love John Paul II to journey there and pray for the protection of his name.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is not far from John Paul II’s hometown of Wadowice. If you are headed to Kraków from Wadowice, Kalwaria is on the way. It is one of the world’s most remarkable ways of the cross, where a renowned passion play takes place each year. I can only imagine Wojtyła in attendance many decades ago. The large sanctuary is in mannerist style, originally built in 1600 by Mikołaj Zebrzydowski, the Voivode of Kraków. Zebrzydowski, following the inspiration of his wife after she experienced a vision of Christ, commissioned Felix Żebrowski, the distinguished mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor, to create a copy of Jerusalem as it was believed to exist at the time of Christ.
The main sanctuary, the Church of the Holy Cross, is located on the Żarek mountain, which is wonderful to behold if you are traveling from Kraków on Route 52. It is meant to bring to mind the Heavenly Jerusalem, the ultimate destination for all of us pilgrims. The complex consists of around forty-five chapels, twenty-four making up the “Path of Our Lord” and twenty-one marking the “Path of Our Lady”. And while the paths are arduous their beauty helps the pilgrim better contemplate the depths of God’s love for the world. (Famous Polish director Jerzy Hoffman beautifully filmed the passion play back in 1958.)
Last summer, I spent many days at Kalwaria, walking the way of the cross with many pilgrims from the region. In addition to Polish, I heard Ukrainian, Czech, and Slovak. Next to the main sanctuary is a house for pilgrims with restaurants and a religious book store. I happened to have George Weigel’s Witness to Hope with me; his description of the shrine helped me better appreciate its significance for Poland, the suffering nation, but particularly for John Paul II, the suffering Pope.
It was here that the young Wojtyła discerned his vocation. It was here that he so often returned as a priest and bishop to offer up his hardships. And it was here that in 1979, during his first pilgrimage as Pope to his homeland, he asked the faithful to pray for him after he dies. With this in mind I prayed to Saint John Paul II. And I will do the same this month, praying not only for the Church in Poland but the Church around the world that still has so much to learn from Polish spirituality so well-articulated by the John Paul the Great.
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