Walking in St. John Paul II’s Footsteps

EWTN TV Special Takes Viewers on Polish Pilgrimage

We were two English ladies in Poland, walking in the footsteps of a great pope. It was a time of pilgrimage and prayer, blended with the study of history and theology.

Clare Anderson and I were in Krakow, Poland, working on a book — John Paul II, Man of Prayer: The Spiritual Life of a Saint, released in March and available at Amazon.com — and our EWTN TV special on John Paul II, In the Footsteps of John Paul the Great, to air Divine Mercy weekend.

The trip began with a minor adventure on the aircraft — it swooped in low to land, and then, with a great roar, it took off again. It was some minor problem, evidently quickly resolved, but there were screams and cries from some passengers — and general relief when we finally descended onto Polish soil.

The idea of the TV special was to celebrate the canonization of John Paul II, April 27, and to tell his story as Catholics: to discover something of his prayer life, his devotion to Christ and to Mary and the influences on his spiritual development.


Saint’s Birthplace

And so we went to Wadowice, his birthplace, some 40 minutes from Krakow, along the main road westwards.

Standing in the beautiful church where the infant Karol Wojtyla was baptized in 1920, we knew it had to be part of our EWTN feature: The ceiling is painted with depictions of his encyclicals, there is a chapel devoted to his memory, and pictures and banners honor him. It is still very much a thriving and living church, with people constantly coming in to pray and a great sense of devotion.


Sites of Krakow

Back in Krakow, we visited the Jagiellonian University, where the young Wojtyla studied, as well as the magnificent cathedral that played such a large part of his life as archbishop. We also visited the great "Ark Church" in Nowa Huta that was built under his leadership in defiance of the communist authorities — and much more.

We lunched with a kindly academic, who, as a young student, had known Archbishop Wojtyla. He talked to us about what it was like in those difficult days, when any opposition to the government regime could bring repression and danger: "He was a protection for us — a sort of umbrella over us — and a fine teacher. We would meet in the church for him to give us talks on all sorts of topics."

The Sunday of our visit saw us at Mass at Nowa Huta — another "must," we decided, for our EWTN special, as the crowds poured into the great modern building to the peals of its bells.

Mealtimes saw us sampling the delicious soup traditionally served in a scooped-out loaf of bread or treating ourselves to cream-filled pastries, said to be Pope John Paul II’s favorite.


Blessed Return Trip

Fast-forward some months: After much planning and emailing, we returned to Krakow and were met by a Polish team from EWTN, cameras at the ready, as we emerged from Jan Pawel II Airport (named after our beloved pope, of course).

By now, we were ready to tell the story of the great John Paul. You can share the adventure with us when you watch the program, and I hope that we are able to convey something of the spiritual journey that we made in his footsteps.

There were so many unforgettable moments: a privileged early-morning visit to the cathedral to pray at the tomb of St. Stanislaus and the Shrine of John Paul II before the day’s tourists arrived; a wonderful interview with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz — "Father Stan," as he told us to call him; and a tour of the archbishop’s palace, where we saw the rooms where Karol Wojtyla lived and studied as a secret seminarian during World War II and later lived as archbishop and returned to in triumph as pope.

There were some other very special moments, too. We visited Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, where the Wojtylas went often on pilgrimage (see travel story on page B5), especially after young Karol lost his mother. It is a series of chapels, set on a hillside, where you can follow the path of Christ to Calvary. As we stood planning the day’s filming, a great crowd of pilgrims arrived, singing and praying as they came up the hill towards us — a picture of Poland’s living faith.

There was also a stirring moment in an ordinary suburb. We went to the street where Jan Tyranowski lived: He was the layman who introduced Karol Wojtyla to St. John of the Cross and led teams of young men in the "Living Rosary" in the grim days of the Nazi occupation. There is now a modest plaque marking his apartment.

In the nearby church — young Karol Wojtyla’s parish church in those wartime years — a series of photographs in a side chapel honor the priests from the Salesian community who were taken away to concentration camps (from which they never returned). The Church of Poland that Karol Wojtyla served as priest and bishop was a Church of heroes.


John Paul the Great

And all the while, we were not only walking in John Paul II’s footsteps, but learning more and more about him. It is no use simply seeing John Paul II as a great son of Poland and a great figure of the 20th century — although, of course, he was both of these things.

You have also to see him as a mystic: a man who, as priest, bishop and pope, would spend hours in prayer, sometimes lying on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament, his arms spread in the form of a cross.

It is important to understand the struggles that he faced in dealing with the communist authorities — and just how brutal, dishonest and thuggish those authorities could be.

And we have to meet John Paul the philosopher, the poet and the playwright, as well as the priest, the scholar, the skier and the friend.

We finished our book in the weeks after our return from Poland, working in our respective homes, emailing chapters to one another and meeting occasionally to work on specific issues. We have dedicated the book to our husbands, who lived with the "John Paul Project" and have been very supportive and enthusiastic about it.

We now plan a return trip to Krakow — the four of us. We’ll give thanks together for the gift of John Paul II’s pontificate and all that he gave to the Church: his courage, his faith, his intellectual gifts and his confidence in the triumph of truth. Our generation, born into a divided Europe, must now, in middle age, face the fresh challenges of a new century.

Thank God we have the inspiration of a great man — now a saint! — to guide us.

Joanna Bogle writes

from London.


The TV special will air April 26 (2pm Eastern) and 27 (10:30am), as well as May 1 at 10pm.