National Catholic Register


To Stand in Professor Wojtyla’s Shadow

A Visit to Catholic John Paul II University in Lublin, Poland


May 20-26, 2007 Issue | Posted 5/15/07 at 10:00 AM


Inside Poland’s Lublin Castle is a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Founded by King Jagiello in the 14th century, its style is Gothic. Yet Byzantine murals adorn the interior. It’s a good example of a city that straddles East and West in the heart of Europe.

Lublin lies at the banks of the Vistula River, about 93 miles to the southeast of Warsaw, the Polish capital, and about 112 miles to the northeast of the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that its most famous son went on to be known as a pope who urged the Church — divided for a millennium between East and West — to “breathe with both lungs.”

And it should come as no surprise that Lublin is striving to preserve the legacy of Pope John Paul II, who taught here as professor Karol Wojtyla. 

Lublin, a typical university town with a well-preserved center, has at least two prominent educational institutions: the state-run Maria-Curie-Sklodowska University and the Catholic John Paul II University (also known as KUL, the Polish acronym for Catholic University of Lublin). The first was erected as a counterpart to the second in communist times. This rivalry has now evaporated. 

“The Lublin time of Karol Wojtyla, the later Pope John Paul II, is often strangely passed over in silence,” Polish philosopher Albert Mieczyslaw Krapiec told the Register. A Dominican priest, he is former president of the KUL, co-founder of the well-known Lublin School of Philosophy and the man responsible for Wojtyla’s engagement as professor of ethics here.

What signs can be found today at the place where Wojtyla taught for more than 24 years?

John Paul’s name was added to the school on Oct. 16, 2005, the anniversary of his election as Pope, and several months after his death in April of that year. And there are images of him around campus, among which the statue in the courtyard is particularly interesting. It shows Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, former primate of Poland, bowing in the direction of Pope John Paul II. It’s a symbolic expression of the fact that, during the communist era, the pope would be the only person to whom the Polish Catholic Church would subordinate itself.

But there are also intangible signs, and they may be even more telling than the visible ones. For example, a certain “spirit of John Paul II” lives on in the professors and administrators who were formed by his teaching and example, whether directly or indirectly. Some retired yet active faculty members were peers of the Holy Father; they had a hand in creating the academic atmosphere in which the professor from Krakow could flourish intellectually and spiritually. 

Family Sanctuary

The heart of Wojtyla’s legacy at the KUL is formed by the interdisciplinary John Paul II Institute, which publishes editions of Wojtyla’s works and commentaries on the Pope’s encyclicals. Cezary Ritter, sociologist and philosopher at the Institute, says the issues of “family and dignity of human life” in the teaching of John Paul II are of particular importance for the future of Poland and the world. The “family of today is somehow in flight,” says the married father of several children. “The studies about the family conducted at this university shall help [us] understand how important the family is as core of our society for its future.”

He points to a Lebanese icon in the conference room that depicts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, a gift of John Paul II to the institute.

“The question of the dignity of human life and its protection is a widely known topic in our societies,” says Ritter, “although the proposed solutions are often not in complete accordance with the teaching of John Paul II.”

Asked about current projects, Ritter offers an intriguing tidbit.

“The most important is the edition of a couple of texts that were discussed in Castel Gandolfo in the presence of the Pope in the late ’90s,” he says. “They have not been published so far.”

Students Lukas Burglin and Karol Podlasin, studying political science at Bydgoszcz in northern Poland, took part in “Philosophical Week” at the KUL, one of the best-known events of its kind in Poland. They were impressed by the university’s atmosphere, its friendly and open spirit.

The two say they are reminded of a remark Pope John Paul made in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (The Relationship Between Faith and Reason), in which he emphasized the role of a trusting dialogue and sincere friendship as general conditions and assistance for intellectual work.

“John Paul II is definitely a great figure in Poland, but the realization of his teaching in everyday life is seen as difficult by many young Polish people,” says one student. “However, the foundation of a family, for instance, is also a very important objective of our personal life,” adds the other.

John Paul Was Here

Naturally, theology and philosophy play an important role at this university marked by an unmistakably Christian humanism.

Does that mean the school only serves as an educational institute for future Catholic priests and nuns? Every visitor notices the many professors who belong to the clergy.

“No, no,” stresses the president of the KUL, Salesian Father Stanislaw Wilk, a specialist in Church history. “Most of our students are laypeople, not all are Catholics, and some are not believers at all. The university has grown greatly. In the past there were 4,000 students; nowadays there are about 20,000. Most students can be found in the law department.”

Talking about the legacy of John Paul II, the president shows the senate room housing the chair used by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the KUL in 1987.

“This is a symbolic sign of his presence during our meetings here,” says Father Wilk. “Yes, we definitely want to keep his legacy alive.”

To that end the university is preparing, for example, a 20-year memorial exhibition of the papal visit to Lublin.

From here on in, no visit to Lublin will be complete without a visit to the Catholic John Paul II University.

Robert Rauhut is based

 in Munich, Germany.