A St. John Paul II Pilgrimage

George Weigel’s Story of Krakow Is ‘Itinerary of Sanctity’

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George Weigel’s latest book, City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow, is an engaging chronicle of a saint interwoven in a city. An inspirational story of how Providence guides human history, helpful travel guide to a city all Catholic visitors to Europe should visit, and love letter to a place dear to Weigel’s heart, City of Saints is the perfect accompaniment to World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow — or good reading ahead of St. John Paul II’s Oct. 22 feast day.

In The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel writes of a “Slavic view of history” that stands in contrast with the Marxist-influenced view of world events as being influenced mostly by material factors. The Slavs, including the Poles, Weigel argues, tend to give more credit to ideas — above all, what we find sacred — in influencing history. He returns to this theme in City of Saints, presenting centuries of history — from Krakow’s glory as a major player in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when it was home to kings who ruled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a large, religiously tolerant and culturally fertile state, to the dark night of World War II and communism and the rise of the Solidarity movement — to show what forged St. John Paul II.

John Paul II’s biographer and co-organizer of the annual Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society (a summer seminar devoted to Catholic social teaching), Weigel presents the history of the man and the city of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge.

“I see John Paul’s legacy inspire young people every July, during the summer seminar I lead in Krakow. The encounter with his city, the city’s history, his ideas and the power of his witness is life-transforming,” Weigel said in a conversation with the Register.

When asked by the Register about John Paul’s favorite places in Krakow, Weigel responded: “Given that he said that Krakow was a city in which ‘every stone is dear to me,’ it’s hard to pick a ‘Top 10.’”

Yet Weigel showcases many places in Krakow that help readers understand John Paul’s pontificate. Wawel Cathedral (shown in Shutterstock photo), where Poland’s Romantic poet-playwrights Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki are buried, is key to understanding John Paul’s intellectual inspirations: As an actor in the Rhapsodic Theatre, which resisted the German occupation by promoting classic Polish literature, Wojtyła often performed their works; Mickiewicz influenced many of Wojtyła’s ideas, such as that Jews are our “elder brothers.”

There is also St. Florian’s parish, where the young Father Wojtyła served as a priest and organized a ministry to young adults, going on hiking and kayaking trips, preparing them for marriage and talking about God. Weigel demonstrates how St. Florian’s paved the way for World Youth Day.

Meanwhile, there is the Skałka church, where 11th-century martyr-bishop St. Stanislaus is buried. Today, the church features an altar to Polish martyrs. John Paul himself was a mouthpiece for the martyred Church. Also worth noting is the Divine Mercy Shrine, located where Christ appeared to St. Faustina Kowalska. It was John Paul who made the Divine Mercy Chaplet popular.

“John Paul II had a very personal sense of the agony of the 20th century, much of which was suffered in Krakow. At the same time, he believed that the answer to the world’s folly had also been given in Krakow, in the revelation of the Divine Mercy given to an obscure Polish nun. In a post-war world paralyzed by a sense of guilt it could not rid itself of by worldly means, the Divine Mercy, and the devotion to it fostered by Sister Faustina’s providential divine gift, gave John Paul inspiration,” Weigel explained.

One of the most inspiring sites in Krakow is the “Ark Church” in Nowa Huta. Based around a steel mill, Nowa Huta was intended to be a centrally planned communist city, one where the people would not need a church. But Nowa Huta’s working class did need a church and fought for one — with the aid of Cardinal Wojtyła. Ultimately, a parish was built (in it, there is a striking sculpture of the crucified Christ, almost appearing to ascend into heaven), and the Poles refused to accept the communist lie of atheism. Today, even historians who dislike the Church acknowledge that Catholicism played a crucial role in the rise of Solidarity in Poland, one of the causes of the collapse of communism.

City of Saints is mandatory reading for all pilgrims visiting Krakow and those who want to understand what made St. John Paul II who he was. Along with Letters to a Young Catholic, it is a perfect confirmation or college-student gift.

Weigel explained how John Paul’s legacy has already had a great impact on American Catholicism: “The living parts of the Church in the United States — parishes, dioceses, seminaries, religious communities, lay movements, universities — are the parts of the Church that have embraced John Paul II’s magisterium.”

The book is accented by than 100 stunning photographs by Stephen Weigel, Weigel’s son, and historical notes on the city’s principal sites by Carrie Gress.

“To follow Karol Wojtyla through Krakow is to follow an itinerary of sanctity, while learning the story of a city,” Weigel writes. “Thus, in what follows, the story of Karol Wojtyla, St. John Paul II, and the story of Krakow are interwoven in a chronological pilgrimage through the life of a saint that reveals, at the same time, the dramatic history and majestic culture of a city where a boy grew into a man, priest, a bishop — and an apostle to the world.”


Filip Mazurczak

is based in Krakow.

Shown, official canonization portrait for St. John Paul II




St. John Paul II’s Poland




This month marks the second year that the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II will be celebrated on Oct. 22, the date of his papal inauguration.

Also known as St. John Paul the Great, he is the patron saint of World Youth Day, which will be held next year in his beloved Krakow, Poland. However, he is much more than that.

In June 2008, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Poland and discovered that many of the places I visited had also been visited by this famous Pope.



The town of Wadowice, in southern Poland, was the Polish Pope’s birthplace. His boyhood home has been converted into a museum that showcases personal items and photographs from his pontificate and life. Near the home is the church in which he attended Mass and served as an altar boy. This beautiful church is adorned with photos and paintings of the Pope. Streets have also been named for his mother, father and brother. In 1979, the Pope visited Wadowice and was greeted by 30,000 people.


Divine Mercy

The Divine Mercy Chaplet and Shrine is located just outside of Krakow. It is a tall, imposing structure with a towering steeple; at its base is a statue of the Pope. Near the shrine is the original convent and church of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. During his 1979 visit, the Pope recalled how he walked by the church daily on his way to work, and then as a young priest presided at Mass there — and again as Krakow’s archbishop.

The idea for the chaplet and shrine came from a vision that congregation member Sister Faustina Kowalska had in 1931. It was an image of Jesus along with the words “Jesus, I trust in you.” A painting would eventually be created from this image and those words. This would help spread the meaning of Divine Mercy to the world. Sister Faustina died in 1938 and was granted sainthood on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 30, 2000, by the Pope. Of that day, he said: “This is the happiest day of my life.”  He would visit again in 2002 to consecrate the basilica.



Just outside of Krakow is the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where more than a million people died during World War II. During his visit in 1979, the Pope celebrated Mass and visited the cell of Polish Franciscan friar St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest whose heroics led to saving others’ lives while losing his own. This Pope was the first to ever visit Auschwitz.


Poland’s Patroness

Our Lady of Czestochowa is one of the most important destinations for people from all over the world and is considered Central Poland’s spiritual hub because this Pauline Monastery houses the painting of the Black Madonna, the patroness of Poland. The Pope made pilgrimages there in 1979, 1983 and 1997. Most significantly, he held the Sixth World Youth Day there in 1991, which was attended by 350,000 people.


Polish Pope

Before he was a pope or a saint, John Paul II was Karol Jozef Wojtyla. He was born on May 18, 1920. Known for his athleticism, acting talent and tenacity, Karol and his widowed father moved to Krakow in 1938. While there, Karol studied philology and languages, pursuits that would assist him greatly as pope.

He was obligated to serve in the military but refused to fire a weapon — another characteristic that would serve him as a future peaceable Pope.

Karol’s father passed away in 1941, and after several harrowing years in seminary in secret locations to avoid detection by the Nazis, Karol was ordained in 1946. He became a bishop in 1958, an archbishop in 1964 and a cardinal in 1967.

In 1978, he became the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. He would spend the next 27 years visiting 129 countries while admonishing communism and promoting peace, unity, human rights, the dignity of life and acceptance of all people throughout the world.

Through intercessions, after his death, he has worked countless miracles. Yet, it could also be said that he was a miracle.


  Cynthia Ruff writes from Toledo, Ohio.