Poles Welcome Pope Francis Into Their Hearts
How St. John Paul II’s Homeland Embraced the Holy Father During World Youth Day
POLISH WYD. Youth flock to the ceremony welcoming Pope Francis to Krakow, with pilgrims from an array of nations, with the Divine Mercy image on stage. Filip Mazurczak photo
Pope Francis’ successful visit to Poland for World Youth Day makes it clear that, unlike in Western Europe, the Catholic faith is still a vibrant and powerful force in Polish society.
Already before World Youth Day 2016 officially started on July 26, it was clear that Polish society would be enthusiastic about the event.
According to a survey by CBOS, Poland’s state polling firm, 85% of Poles believed that it was an honor for Poland and Krakow to host the event, while 49% believed that World Youth Day would strengthen the Christian faith in Poland. Furthermore, 4% of Poles planned on personally taking part in the papal visit (1.5 million Poles, roughly the number that ultimately showed up), and 68% said they would follow it via media. These results were unsurprising, given Pope Francis’ popularity in Poland: According to a 2015 CBOS poll, 84% of Poles consider him to be “an important moral authority.”
Leading up to World Youth Day, “Days in the Dioceses” were held. About 130,000 pilgrims from every continent shared their faith with their Polish host families and volunteers. These pilgrims immediately won over the hearts of Poles. The streets were dominated by young people, praying and singing in every language, and Polish society loved these prayerful visitors.
“My reaction [to the pilgrims] was extremely positive. I’m a young and active person, and this enormous gathering of young, joyous people caused a new, fresh spirit to inspire me,” said Małgorzata Stefanowicz, who teaches political science at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
Franciscan Father Grzegorz Siwek, a friar in Krakow, echoed these sentiments: “The joy, faith and hope that I saw in so many young people was what struck me most during my first impression. I fondly recall meeting so many great people, and I’m sad that they’ve all left.”
And Dawid Gospodarek, a journalist, said: “I was most touched when I saw groups of young people with flags from countries whose political relations are, to put it lightly, complicated, walking together. Israelis and Iranians, Taiwanese and Chinese … they all went together with the same joy and same aim. This is an enormous experience for the Church, which unifies.”
Meanwhile, many pilgrims were deeply impressed with the hospitality and faith of the Cracovians they encountered.
“Krakow was a very beautiful, friendly and welcoming city. The Polish people’s faith is lovely and contagious. When we were tired and hungry, our host families did everything to make us feel better. They gave us everything we needed,” said Guadalupe Perez from Mexico.
Iacobo, a pilgrim from Italy, echoed her sentiments: “People in Krakow were very generous and patient with the pilgrims. They showed us hospitality and gave us food and whatever we needed.”
Ahead of World Youth Day, some media suggested that there would be tensions between Pope Francis and Poland’s conservative government, which has been hesitant to accept Muslim migrants and to lower fossil-fuel emissions.
This did not occur. Relations between the Pope and Poland’s president and prime minister, Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydło, were cordial. The three constantly smiled in each other’s company. During his opening address in Wawel Castle, Pope Francis mentioned the refugee issue, encouraging Poland to accept refugees, but also to stop Polish emigration to Western Europe.
Prime Minister Szydło replied that her political vision is fully in line with that of Pope Francis, as Poland has provided asylum to many Ukrainians fleeing war and poverty and has provided humanitarian assistance to the Middle East. Szydło claims that, during her private audience with the Pope earlier this year, Francis praised these policies.
Also in Wawel, Pope Francis explicitly encouraged Poles to protect life from conception to natural death. Poland allows abortion only when a pregnancy threatens the life or health of a woman, when the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or in the case of “fetal malformation.” But, recently, Polish pro-lifers gathered 450,000 signatures for a civic initiative that would ban abortion entirely, and the parliament will vote on this soon.
The Pope’s words are a strong boost to the Polish pro-life movement.
The figures of Sts. John Paul II and Faustina Kowalska towered over Poland during the papal visit. Pope Francis made repeated references to them, and their images were ubiquitous across Krakow.
“My friends and I feel that John Paul II is still alive. He did so many things for the world and was a wonderful man. We could feel he was still alive in Krakow,” said Gabriel, a pilgrim from Brazil.
Naturally, the best gauge of the success of World Youth Day is the number of conversions and vocations it will ultimately inspire.
However, in terms of post-WYD numbers, World Youth Day 2016 was an enormous success: An estimated 500,000 pilgrims attended a Mass presided by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz opening World Youth Day in Błonie Park. And approximately 600,000 people welcomed Pope Francis in Błonie; roughly 800,000 (according to some estimates, 1 million) attended the Stations of the Cross. Then 1.6 million pilgrims attended the night vigil with Pope Francis in the field in Brzegy.
According to initial predictions, 1.5 million pilgrims were expected to attend the closing Mass on Sunday. However, according to Anna Chmura, the press secretary of the World Youth Day 2016 organizing committee, 2.5 million to 3 million showed up.
This makes Krakow the third-largest World Youth Day, after Manila (1995) and Rio de Janeiro (2013), and the largest that has taken place in Europe.
Coming to the homeland of Pope St. John Paul II, who is still revered as a national hero by almost all Poles, the bar was set high for Francis.
The Pope’s visits to Czestochowa, where he praised Poland’s 1,050-year legacy of Christianity in front of huge crowds, Prokocim hospital, where he met with sick children, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he met with concentration-camp survivors and Poles who aided Jews during the Holocaust, were positively received by Poles.
Numerous spontaneous gestures, such as Francis’ embracing of a girl with disabilities in Czestochowa, also touched many Polish hearts.
“It was very beautiful that the Pope made these gestures [meeting with sick children and with Holocaust survivors]. It’s so wonderful that he found the time to visit these places and meet with such people,” said Justyna Walkowicz, an actress from Krakow.
During a press conference, the Polish prime minister, who grew up near Auschwitz-Birkenau, praised Francis’ visit to the former Nazi concentration camps.
“Today, we have the third pope [visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau] and the third, unique way of experiencing that place — in silence and contemplation,” she said, referring to the fact that Pope Francis decided to remain silent during his visit. “But I think that all three visits made a great impression on those who took part, and this is an enormous example of humility, love and also forgiveness.”
When Szydło greeted the Pope at the hospital in Prokocim, she thanked him for “so beautifully teaching our hearts.”
Above all, the massive crowds that flocked to the “papal window” at the Krakow archbishop’s palace in Franciszkaska Street attest to Francis’ popularity in Poland.
During his visits to Krakow, St. John Paul II made impromptu appearances in the “papal window,” informally conversing with the crowds, so Francis was following in his Polish predecessor’s footsteps.
Polish society’s love for Pope Francis is not unrequited.
In his encounters with Polish faithful, joy exuded from Francis.
On his flight back to Rome, the Pope praised the Polish people’s piety, enthusiasm and their “goodness.” He told reporters, “I had an experience of knowing the Polish people when I was a child, and where my father worked many Poles came to work after the war. They were good people, and this has stayed in my heart. I rediscovered this goodness of yours.”
The successful visit of Pope Francis for World Youth Day 2016 shows that the Church in Poland remains potent, dynamic and young.
John Paul II was undoubtedly proud of his countrymen when he saw from heaven the treatment they gave his successor.
Pope Francis mentioned exactly this in his final homily on July 31 and even tweeted about it: “A huge ‘thank you,’ dear young people! St. John Paul II rejoiced in heaven and will help you bring the joy of the Gospel wherever you go.”
Filip Mazurczak filed this report from Krakow, Poland,
where he covered World Youth Day for the Register.
‘AMAZING’ PILGRIMAGE. Zakopane-area pilgrims show their Polish spirit. Filip Mazurczak photo
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