After Czestochowa, our pilgrim group, organized by Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and headed by Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh, wended our way to Wadowice, the birthplace of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the Polish boy would become Pope John Paul II — and whose feast day as the Church’s newly declared “Blessed” is Oct. 22.
Born in 1920, he lived in this small city during his childhood and adolescence, until 1938, when he entered the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
Suffering and loss soon entered the life of the small family, with the death of Karol’s mother in 1929, and then his older brother in 1932. Yet a deep faith and sense of hope — rather than desolation and bitterness — pervaded the Wojtyla home, a spiritual perspective fostered by the devout Catholicism of Karol’s father, a retired army captain, who immersed himself in prayer for hours. Looking back on those formative years, John Paul would describe that domestic environment as his first “seminary.”
Dubbed “Lolek” by his family and school friends, Karol visited his parish church, St. Mary’s, daily, attending Mass and praying before Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He received his first Communion and was confirmed at the church. As Pope, he would return here, kissing the baptismal font where he was received into the faith.
In Gift and Mystery: On the 50th Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination, the Holy Father recalled that the church was where he first came to the notice of then-metropolitan archbishop of Krakow Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha, a towering figure in the Church in Poland.
Still a high-school student at the time, Karol was asked to give a welcome address to the archbishop, who would soon become a cherished mentor after the young man entered an underground seminary established to elude Nazi surveillance. The teenager’s speech impressed the archbishop, and he inquired about Wojtyla’s academic plans. When told he would study Polish language and letters, the archbishop replied, “Pity it is not theology.”
In his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel depicts Wadowice as a faith-centered city: “Physically and culturally, the focal point of Wadowice was St. Mary’s Church. ... The parish was part of the town’s life for almost 650 years.”
Yet, the vital place of Catholicism in Wadowice did not prevent the Jewish community from freely participating in local life during Lolek’s childhood. Several playmates were Jewish, including Jerzy Kluger — the old friend who would be the first individual granted a private audience by Pope John Paul II following his election.
Weigel’s biography notes that, during the mid-1930s, when anti-Semitism began to surface in the city, Lolek and his father assured their Jewish friends and acquaintances that they stood against religious intolerance.
While some Poles would soon take up arms to resist the Nazi occupation and its increasingly aggressive anti-Jewish policies, the spiritual foundations of Lolek’s early life would lead him in a different direction. Eschewing violence, he would seek to foster the religious and cultural core of Polish identity. And during his first visit to Poland as the Vicar of Christ — a full decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall — he would adjure his fellow Poles to begin to live “as if they were free,” liberated from the stranglehold of the totalitarian lie.
As our group entered St. Mary’s Church, we were greeted by a throng of schoolchildren who almost filled the spacious baroque church. Young mothers with strollers moved through the aisles, visiting the side altars, and pausing before a replica of the Black Madonna icon. This church is no museum, but a vital place of Christian worship.
The magnificent central altar is made of marble. Our Lady is poised at the center, a crowned silver image surrounded by gold, with shining angels standing guard. Above, the ceiling is painted with a beautiful depiction of Pentecost.
Elsewhere in the church, there are paintings on the ceiling that celebrate 12 of the late Pope’s groundbreaking encyclicals, including Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor.
We paused to venerate a relic of Blessed John Paul II and another relic of St. Padre Pio, the Italian stigmatist who would intercede — at the request of then-Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow — to help save the life of a patient with terminal brain cancer: Wanda Poltawska, a close friend and pastoral collaborator, as well as a death-camp survivor.
During a Mass at St. Mary’s, Bishop Zubik reflected on Pope John Paul II’s rich appreciation for the spiritual foundation he received during his childhood. Bishop Zubik noted that the Pope “rejoiced in this church, where he was baptized.” The bishop asked us to do the same.
As we worshipped in the place where Karol Wojtyla began his own earthly pilgrimage, we pondered how God intervened in human history through him. Bishop Zubik reminded us that God is also prepared to act in our lives — if we let him.
“As we follow the footsteps of John Paul II, this man who became the shepherd of the Church, let’s not distance ourselves,” said Bishop Zubik. “Let’s realize that God wants to do the same for you and me.”
This is the second part of a series about Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond’s summer pilgrimage.