A Pilgrimage to the ‘Polish Jerusalem’ — Kalwaria Zebrzydowska

The sanctuary complex near Kraków includes a basilica, a cloister and dozens of outdoor chapels.

Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska
Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (photo: Pecold / Shutterstock)

Pilgrimage has always been a feature of Christian spirituality. Over the past two weeks, we’ve examined two Marian pilgrimage sites in Poland: Częstochowa, the country’s national shrine to which pilgrims converge all year long but especially by on-foot pilgrimages from around the country on Aug. 15, and Gietrzywałd, the site of the country’s one approved Marian apparition.

In Christian tradition, the destination of pilgrimage par excellence has always been Jerusalem. Christians have always wanted to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Some of our earliest Christian pilgrimage literature, e.g., the fourth-century Peregrinatio Egeriae, focuses on Jerusalem. 

But Christians haven’t always had access to Jerusalem. One of the reasons for the Crusades was precisely being able to go to the Holy City. Even today, access to sacred sites — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — remains a sticking point in the Middle East. And, even if there were no official barriers, not everybody could go to Jerusalem.

So, if the pilgrim can’t go to Jerusalem, how about bringing Jerusalem to the pilgrim?

That’s what Mikołaj Zebrzydowski did in 1600 when he founded the “Polish Jerusalem,” the Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.

About 25 miles southwest of Kraków, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is a sanctuary complex that includes a basilica, the Bernadine Fathers’ cloister, and 2.3 square miles of more than 40 outdoor chapels. The chapels are thematically arranged around Christ’s Passion and Mary’s participation in it, her “falling asleep,” and her coronation as Queen of Heaven. The chapels of Christ’s Passion are laid out, in terms of distance and topography, to match the path traveled from Gethsemane through his trials to Calvary and his tomb.

Today, we’re focusing on the “path of Mary.”

The chapels of Our Lady are divided into three parts, which intersect the “path of Jesus.” In Part I, “the cycle of suffering,” three Marian chapels and six Passion chapels trace the Lord’s Way of the Cross, accompanied by his Mother. Part II, the “cycle of her falling asleep,” includes five Marian chapels associated with moments of Mary’s passing from this world. They include her home, the gathering of the Apostles around her, and her soul being honored by the angels. Part III, the “cycle of the Assumption,” encompasses four chapels of Mary’s Assumption and her entrance into heavenly glory. 

Individual pilgrims are free to trace these paths on their own, at their own speed, praying and meditating at the various chapels and stations. There are also communal celebrations moving among the chapels and stations: the path of Christ’s Passion, reenacted on Good Friday, and the path of Mary, reenacted in August in conjunction with the Assumption.

The Basilica also hosts an icon of “the Mother of God of Kalwaria,” in the possession of the Bernadine Fathers since 1641. The image has been called “miraculous” because of the numerous graces received by those praying before it. It was crowned on Aug. 15, 1887, and is located in its own chapel within the basilica. 

Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is closely connected with St. John Paul II, who spoke of visiting it many times as a child, young man, priest and bishop. (Wadowice, John Paul’s boyhood home, is about nine miles away.) Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have visited Kalwaria.

In addition to the basilica, Bernadine cloister, and the outdoor dróżki (paths), the complex also includes a Bernadine seminary and a pilgrim’s home.

Marian pilgrims should consider visiting around the Solemnity of the Assumption. In honor of Mary’s “Dormition,” there is a “funeral” procession that leads to her coronation. That procession and the annual Way of the Cross on Good Friday are the two large communal events in a shrine that should otherwise be navigated by the pilgrim privately.

Having a shrine that imitates the spaces and topography of Jerusalem leaves an impression that the neat “Stations of the Cross” in one’s local parish just cannot give. Where it struck me was the distance between the chapel of the Third Fall and where Jesus is stripped of his garments. That was an ascent up a hill — Calvary — and it’s an ascent in Kalwaria. A bit of a push for the overweight and out-of-shape, imagine what Jesus, having been tortured for at least the preceding 15 hours, having lost a lot of blood and dragging the patibulum (the horizontal bar of the cross) that might have weighed about 75 pounds up that hill.

Most tour operators of the Kraków region include Kalwaria and/or Wadowice, though the sanctuary is an easy (and far cheaper) bus ride from Kraków. A pilgrim who wants to visit Kalwaria prayerfully should plan on a full day (or stay overnight at the Pilgrims Home). Spring and summer — with long days — are probably the best months to visit, given the outdoor nature of the Sanctuary, especially around the Solemnity of the Assumption.