Following the Footsteps of a Saint, in John Paul II’s Poland

Catholic journalist Joanna Bogle shares her experiences from a recent trip, during which she was working on an upcoming EWTN feature about the late pope.

Statue of John Paul II in Poznan, Poland.
Statue of John Paul II in Poznan, Poland. (photo: Wikipedia)

An emotional moment. We’re in Krakow, meeting Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz and hearing firsthand about John Paul the Great. The cardinal is warm and friendly and doesn’t want a lot of formality — “I’m Father Stan” he says, as we are introduced. He is genial, thoughtful and extremely interesting — our list of prepared questions soon gives way to a much deeper discussion.

And as our long conversation ends, he says twice, with quiet earnestness: “He was a saint. He was a saint.”

The “we” is a pair of Catholic writers from Britain, Clare Anderson and myself, and the interview is for a big EWTN feature on the great pope that will be broadcast worldwide to mark his forthcoming canonization.

The interview with the cardinal was just one of several unforgettable experiences that made working on this project for EWTN so special. We were based in Krakow, and we went to Wadowice, Kalwaria, Częstochowa, the Divine Mercy Shrine at Lagiewniki and many more places.

Clare and I have both worked for various Catholic publications. Some while back, we talked about producing a book together that would look at the “inner life” of John Paul: his mystical journey, his Marian theology, the influence of St. John of the Cross on him, the “living Rosary” of the wartime years he experienced and so on. Out of this grew a plan for a TV program — and then Pope Francis announced the canonization of John Paul, and so the whole thing was brought forward very quickly.

My own memories of Krakow go back to the time of martial law in the 1980s, when my husband and I were among those secretly bringing in books and materials needed by Solidarity, working underground. As told now, the adventures seem quite exciting: At the time, the concern was simply to get the job done and to make sure our contacts were secure and all went according to plan. And it all belongs to a different era.

Now, on this EWTN trip, Clare and I were charged with something quite different: bringing home to viewers the extraordinary story of John Paul, Poland’s greatest son and the pope who led the Church across the threshold of the new millennium and into the 21st century.

Wadowice is John Paul’s birthplace. The apartment where he grew up is so close to the church that you can almost lean out of the kitchen window and touch the church wall. In retrospect, it seems as though the boy living here was destined to dedicate his life to God’s service. Today, the building is being prepared to house the collection that tells something of his story: skis and school reports, photos and memorabilia. 

The Wadowice church, where he was baptized and where he attended Mass daily before school, now has stunning ceilings that depict his encyclicals. As you gaze upwards, there they all are: Redemptor Hominis, Veritatis Splendor ...

Kalwaria, where the young Karol went with his father on pilgrimage, is a wonderful craggy hillside, with glorious views, and you walk from chapel to chapel, following the Way of the Cross. As we gathered there with our camera team, we heard singing, and a great crowd came surging up the main pathway, their music swelling as they neared us — young and old, parents with small children in strollers, teenagers in jeans, older ladies swinging rosaries. Later, as I scrambled down the hill, I met another group, led by an English priest. Kalwaria draws everyone.

And so we explored the story. At Wadowice, we spoke of Karol Wojtyla, whose boyhood friendship with Jerzy Kluger matured into a magnificent project sealing new friendship between Catholics and Jews — much needed in Poland (where, tragically, anti-Semitism still finds a voice).

In Krakow, we pondered Archbishop Wojtyla, the much-loved pastor, whose picture now adorns the window that he made his own at the archbishop’s house, following his memorable encounter with the young crowds on the street below, praying and singing with them, teaching them, inspiring them and giving them hope.

In Wawel Cathedral, we venerated a relic of John Paul, now placed alongside that of St. Stanislaus, hero-bishop of long ago. John Paul’s relic is set in a great book, with pages made of beaten silver, calling to mind the book of the Gospels placed on his coffin that closed with such finality in the great wind at his funeral.

John Paul is the man of courage who was shot in St. Peter’s Square and then, a year later, was stabbed by a priest from a schismatic group, but whose life was saved and who attributed this to Mary, the motherly intercessor to whom he had dedicated himself years before: Totus Tuus (Totally Yours). 

Poland today is full of shops, consumerism, some drunken groups of British tourists (ugh!) and vast crowds surging in to Sunday Mass at the great Ark Church in Nowa Huta, where the Communist authorities had originally planned a “city without God.” There are crowds at the Shrine of Divine Mercy, deep in prayer. There is also music and lively talk and delicious food in cafes and restaurants in Krakow’s main square.

And a vast — and I do mean vast — new shrine is being built honoring him on the open land beyond; a shrine that I initially was prepared to dismiss as a great white elephant, but which is emerging as something magnificent, of noble quality, worthy of God and of the man, priest and pope who loved and served God so faithfully.

After the canonization of John Paul, the next big adventure will be Krakow’s World Youth Day. New chapters are unfolding. I’ll certainly be going back.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.

 She is author of the children's book Blessed John Paul the Great

and co-author with Clare Anderson of a second book on

Pope John Paul II to be published in spring 2014.