Visiting the Polish Jerusalem

As a boy living in nearby Wadowice, Karol Wojtyla often would come and spend time in prayer at the various chapels of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Before he became Pope John Paul II, he would often visit the shrine as an archbishop and later as a cardinal.

Many times he came unannounced and walked the paths by himself in solitude. The shrine had such an impact on his life that he wrote in his book Gift and Mystery: “Even as a child, and still more as a priest and bishop, [devotion to Mary] would lead me to make frequent Marian pilgrimages to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. … I would go there often, walking along its paths in solitude and present to the Lord in prayer the various problems of the Church, especially in the difficult times during the struggle against communism.”

In fact, any pilgrim visiting Kalwaria Zebryzdowska will always remember the beauty of the place, and its unforgettable atmosphere of prayer and meditation.

Whether one walks around the hillside of chapels, or participates in the spectacular Passion play or processions in honor of our Lady, one can't help sink deeply into the mystery of the suffering and death of Christ, and into the life of his Mother. Summing it up best, Pope John Paul II once said, “that is why we come here over and over again.”

The shrine consists of more than 40 chapels and a spectacular basilica. One of Poland's most beautiful places of pilgrimage, it is situated between two mountain ranges and welcomes more than 1 million visitors every year from around the world.

Since many of the chapels depict the life of Christ and his Mother, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is often referred to as a “Polish Jerusalem.”

The origin of the shrine dates back to 1600 when a squire from Krakow named Mikolaj Zebrzydowski, built a small sanctuary on the Zarek Hill representing the Crucifixion scene.Modeled after a church from Jerusalem, the popular chapel was consecrated one year later in the presence of numerous clergy and local nobility.

Soon afterward, the local prelate entrusted the little shrine to the Franciscans (known as the Bernardines in Poland). So popular did the small sanctuary become in the following years that Zebrzydowski decided to build more chapels on the hill, each following the modelof a specific church from the Holy Land.

When the Friars arrived, the squire promised to build their monastery.

On Dec. 1, 1600, Zebrzydowski put forward the plans for the new monastery (and the enlarging of the original church), and in 1604, he broke ground.

The new complex was designed in the same fashion as a Renaissance castle — with the church and living quarters of the monks not being separated. On Oct. 4, 1609, the Franciscans consecrated their new home and church.

In the ensuing years, a number of chapels began to be built throughout the hillside. By 1617, sanctuaries on what is called the “Via Dolorosa pathway” were completed.

As symbolism played a large part in the construction of each devotional sanctuary, the chapels were built with different shapes to fit their meaning.

For example, some were designed in the form of a cross, a heart or a triangle.

After Zebrzydowski's death in 1620, his son, and later his grandson, took over the duties and continued the expansion.

Thus their family name became permanently attached to this shrine that is centered on the mystery of Calvary (Kalwaria).

Since the beginning, celebrations and processions have been the hallmark of the shrine. As early as 1611, a prayer book was published for those who came to pray and take part in various religious services. By 1617, special services known as the “Co-suffering of Our Lady” had developed whereby the pilgrims would begin a walk from the Tomb of Christ and end at the Loreto House chapel, singing songs and saying designated prayers.

During the first 40 years of the sanctuary's history, pilgrims venerated a statue of our Lady, which the founder had brought from Loreto, Italy. In 1641, the Franciscans erected a special shrine inside the main church to house the holy image. In 1887, the cardinal of Krakow crowned the miraculous statue before an enthusiastic and festive crowd.

What the shrine is probably best known for, however, is its annual Passion play which began in the 17th century.

The performance begins on Palm Sunday and continues on Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

The blend of religious ceremony and local theater, re-enacting the most crucial days of Christ's life, is orchestrated by local townspeople and monks, who also play the parts of Jesus, the Apostles, Roman legionaries, and other important historical figures.

As one of Eastern Europe's most significant places of pilgrimage, the shrine is not only active during Holy Week.

It features a full program of celebrations, processions and daily activities throughout the year with an emphasis on Marian feast days.

Today, the Holy Father continues to return to Kalwaria, the place where his father once served as a tour guide.

On June 7, 1979, shortly after being elected Pope, he visited the shrine and bestowed the title of basilica on the main church.

In 1987, while praying before the miraculous image of our Lady, the Pope offered the Virgin of Kalwaria a golden papal rose as a “sign of gratitude for what she had been, and is, in his life.”

Again, in the 1990s, John Paul II has returned several times to his favorite boyhood shrine.

Kevin Wright lives in Bellevue, Washingto