Our Blessed Mother had the profoundest influence on the spiritual life of St. John Paul II.
Intense devotion to her was always a characteristic trait of Polish mysticism, and so it was for him.
Karol Wojtyła first learned traditional Polish Marian devotion at home and in his parish. During his grade-school years, he would stop at the parish church on the way to school each morning and once again upon returning home in the evening, to pray in front of an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a major Marian shrine eight miles from Karol’s hometown, had a particularly great influence on the early formation of his Marian devotion. When his father would take him to the shrine as a child, it made a deep impression upon him. Second in Poland only to Czestochowa, it attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year to pray before the miraculous image of Matka Boza Kalwaryjska, which had shed tears of blood in 1641.
As a young man during the war, he thought that he should distance himself from his childhood devotion to Mary in order to “focus more on Christ.” But when he encountered St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion, he learned “that ‘true devotion to Mary’ was always focused on Christ.”
In Our Lady of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska perhaps Karol saw a mother, who helped fill the void left by the loss of his own mother at such an early age. But in Czestochowa she reigned for him as queen on her throne of Jasna Góra, “The Bright Mountain.” Since its arrival in 1361, this image has played a crucial role in Polish consciousness, which, in turn, influenced the personal spirituality of St. John Paul.
After the attempt on his life in 1981, he presented the bullet removed from his chest to Our Lady in Fatima, but he gave the blood-and-gunpowder-stained sash he wore that day to Mary in Czestochowa.
The Passion and Suffering
Whereas St. John Paul’s Marian devotion is well-known, few people know of his intense devotion to Our Lord’s passion. And to fully understand this aspect of his spirituality, we need to return once again to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.
Often called the “Polish Jerusalem,” it began in 1600, when a devout aristocrat began building chapels representing Jerusalem’s Via Crucis. And every year since then, plays re-enact the Passion during Holy Week amid vast crowds of pilgrims. As a young boy, Karol saw the emotional intensity of devout pilgrims following “Christ” from station to station, and it left a strong impression on him.
The influence of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska on the formation of St. John Paul II’s Marian and Passion spirituality cannot be overestimated. In fact, his spirituality cannot be adequately understood without it. Throughout his life, he would return to Kalwaria, time and time again.
During a visit there in August 2002, he said: “In a mysterious manner, this place tunes the heart and mind for entering into the mystery of that bond, which united the Suffering Savior with his Mother, who shared his suffering. And in the center of that mystery of love, everyone who comes here finds himself, his life, his own daily rhythm of life, his weakness and, at the same time, the strength of faith and hope.”
Thus the acceptance of suffering as a sharing in the passion of Christ was a prominent and pervading element of the spirituality of St. John Paul II. It was a theme that grew out of his own life experience and the history of his homeland. Poles have often shown “a clear tendency to highlight sufferings as the key to the nation’s philosophy of history. For more than three centuries, suffering has been a constant historical determinant of Poland and the price paid for patriotism.”
Therefore, the role of suffering in St. John Paul’s spiritual life cannot be adequately understood outside of this broader context of Polish history. Life during the Nazi occupation was characterized by extreme suffering. He saw death and suffering everywhere in wartime Kraków, and he asked himself: “So many of my friends have perished, and why not me?”
Still, Karol kept hearing Christ tell him through the Gospels: “Fear not!” For, as he once wrote, the Gospel “does not promise a comfortable life to anyone. It makes demands, and, at the same time, it is a great promise — the promise of eternal life for man.”
He learned from St. John of the Cross that the soul searching for God must go through a purification by plunging into “a kind of radical emptiness … [for] God can only be known in himself when all of our human attempts to ‘reach’ God are abandoned in complete surrender.”
So, through the intense suffering of his own life, when he lost “every other security and plunge[d] into a kind of radical emptiness,” Karol gradually began to realize that perhaps God was calling him to a special mission, that perhaps he had a special role to play in God’s plan — that perhaps he was calling him to become a priest, another Christ, and to offer up his life in a similar manner for the salvation of men. It may be that he kept telling us throughout the years of his pontificate, “Be not afraid,” because in the crucible of wartime Poland he discovered that if he abandoned himself totally to God, he would have nothing to fear, for he would gain what was most important — God himself.
One could, perhaps, say that, by the time of his ordination, the spirituality that would influence the rest of St. John Paul II’s life had essentially taken shape. There was, however, one other aspect of his spiritual life that would not yet emerge fully until several years into his priesthood: something we might call his spirituality of the body.
At St. Florian’s parish in Kraków, he was assigned to work with young university students. As he watched them fall in love and struggle with the weaknesses of the flesh, a spiritual perspective on the relationship of the body to the soul gradually began to emerge in his mind, which many years later crystallized into his teachings on the theology of the body.
Although it perhaps looked as if this was something completely new, it really wasn’t. In a sense, it reflected the Carmelite spirituality that had such a large impact on Karol Wojtyła’s own spiritual life. So he taught his students that in marriage they should surrender themselves to each other in an act of complete self-giving love, body and soul, by which they would come to know and understand true love.
St. John Paul II was born into a unique Catholic culture that was lived intensely by the Poles of his era, a culture that reflected the soul of the nation and which would, in turn, form his identity and profoundly influence his spirituality. It was rooted deeply in Poland’s history and inspired by Polish saints. It was thoroughly permeated by a Marian and Passion spirituality, grounded not only in great mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Louis de Montfort, but also in the spirituality of his country that he learned from the various spiritual masters that crossed his path. The spirituality of St. John Paul II was like a rich tapestry, woven from many different threads, revealing for us the inner life of a great modern mystic.
The principal dimension of his spirituality was “his living bond with Jesus Christ. … [For] thanks to this complete union with Christ, [he] became like a reflection of him.” He was convinced that everything that took place in his life was the realization of God’s designs.
St. John Paul II was “Great” not just because he had a great intellect. He was also “Great” because of his great sanctity. He learned theology from study, but came to a far deeper understanding of the faith on his knees, which is where one learns not just what God teaches us, but how to think as he does. He was a great mystic who lived his life in intimate union with God.
His spirituality was the way in which he lived that union in a unique way — and by coming to a better understanding of it, we can catch a glimpse into the very soul of a saint.
Father Dennis Kolinski, of the Canons Regular of
St. John Cantius, is associate pastor at
St. John Cantius in Chicago.