KRAKOW, Poland — Pope Francis is a pastor of powerful gestures. Tomorrow, when he arrives here for World Youth Day, he should make a prolonged, prayerful and purposeful visit to the tombs in Wawel Cathedral, first among them King Jan III Sobieski.
The scourge of Islamic State violence marred the first day of WYD here, when the news arrived that Father Jacques Hamel had been beheaded in his parish church in France — during the celebration of the Eucharist, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz stressed at the opening Mass, conveying his shock at the bloody blasphemy and sacrilege of this latest martyrdom. As Providence would have it, tomorrow afternoon, the Holy Father is scheduled to meet with the Polish bishops at the cathedral, in the crypt of which King Jan III Sobieski is buried. There is no figure in European history more associated with righteous resistance to aggressive Islamic expansion that the 17th-century king of Poland, who defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Upon his victory, Sobieski was hailed as the savior of Christendom, but he deflected the honor, expressing himself in lapidary Latin: Veni; vidi; Deus vincit! (“I came; I saw; God conquered!”)
Pope Francis need not say anything. But to visit the tomb of the historic hero of resistance to aggressive Islam would speak volumes. It could not be easier to do, as Sobieski is buried alongside other heroes of Polish history. Indeed, his sarcophagus is in St. Leonard’s Chapel, in the place of honor across from the altar where a newly ordained Father Karol Wojtyła chose to offer his first holy Mass on All Souls’ Day 1946. Pope Francis, coming to Kraków in part to honor the great “Pope of Mercy,” could venerate the altar of St. John Paul’s first Mass before visiting Sobieski’s tomb, where he might offer a silent prayer that something akin to the spirit of 1683 might reawaken in Europe.
It would be salutary for WYD pilgrims, to say nothing of the world press, to consider why John Paul would have chosen St. Leonard’s crypt, in the presence of King Jan III Sobieski’s remains, for his first Mass.
It was because Karol Wojtyła was both a Christian disciple and a Polish patriot, and he considered Polish history to be a drama of fidelity amid difficult trials. There is no place where Polish history is more tangible than in Kraków, the ancient and royal capital of the Polish nation. The heart of Kraków is Wawel Hill, the site of the royal palace and the cathedral. The crypt of the cathedral, repository of the royal sarcophagi and resting place of the heroes of Polish history, is a place of national memory.
On the main altar upstairs are the remains of St. Stanisław, the bishop of Kraków martyred in 1079 by King Bolesław while he was celebrating holy Mass. A timely mention of that would also be wise to add to the prepared remarks that the Holy Father will be delivering in the presence of St. Stanisław’s relics on Wednesday evening.
A relic of St. John Paul is now on that main altar as well, and there is a side chapel with the Polish Pope’s image; but it is the altar in St. Leonard’s Chapel that is the principal John Paul site at Wawel, and so it would be eminently suitable for a visit.
After President Lech Kaczyński of Poland was killed in an April 2010 plane crash, his remains were brought back to Poland to lie in state in the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, and then he was laid to rest, along with his wife, Maria, who died in the same accident, in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral.
Kaczyński’s plane crashed on his way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1940 Katyn Massacre, when the Soviet secret police killed more than 20,000 Polish military personnel (half of the entire officer corps), along with other social and cultural leaders. It was the definitive Soviet contribution to the dismemberment of Poland in alliance with the Nazis. Poland had already been defeated in 1939; the 1940 Katyn killings were an attempt to mortally wound the hope that an independent Poland would return. The Kaczyński grave is intended to be a broader memorial to those killed at Katyn — to register in the royal crypt, as it were, the memory of those who died at the hands of the latest invaders who were attempting to kill Poland. A pause at that plaque commemorating the Katyn massacre near the Kaczyński grave would also be a powerful signal to the current tyrant in Moscow that the Church has not forgotten his invasion of Ukraine, even if the world is eager to move on.
To visit the tombs of Kraków is to realize how often Poland has been on the front lines protecting Europe’s liberty. Not far from Kaczyński’s tomb is that of Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s chief of state when it returned to the map of Europe in 1918, after more than a century of partition. War soon came, with the Russian Bolshevik regime, and the fighting reached Warsaw itself — until Piłsudski’s forces prevailed in a battle often called the “Miracle at the Vistula River.” Had Poland not prevailed in 1920, Russian Communism would have spread to the heart of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, with dire consequences for the reconstruction of a free Europe.
Poland in 1683, 1920 and then again in 1989 was in the vanguard of making Europe safe for free and independent countries.
During WYD, the liberation of Europe from Soviet tyranny in 1989 will no doubt be mentioned, giving due honor to John Paul. The saint himself chose to honor Polish history and King Jan III Sobieski at his first Mass. It would be timely to do again as Pope Francis begins his visit to Kraków, the heart of Poland and, in important ways, the heart of Europe, which is now bleeding.
is editor in chief of
He is in Kraków to cover
World Youth Day for
the Register and EWTN.