World Youth Day '16: Popes, Poland and Powerful PR

COMMENTARY: This year's festival in Krakow is expected to draw 2 million pilgrims.

John Paul II in 1979
John Paul II in 1979 (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

KRAKÓW, Poland — Time is at a premium during Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day. The Holy Father desired a brief trip limited only to the principal WYD events, originally planning only private visits to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa and to Auschwitz. But the Polish bishops pressed for a public Mass at Czestochowa to mark the 1,050th anniversary of the “baptism of Poland,” and the Holy Father agreed.

Therein lies a tale that explains the contemporary history of the Church in Poland and two of St. John Paul’s signature initiatives — World Youth Day itself and the Great Jubilee of 2000.

The Polish Church’s celebration of the 1,050th anniversary of its Christian identity — dated from the baptism of Mieszko, duke of Poland, in 966 — sounds rather forced, but what is principally being celebrated is the 50th anniversary of the Polish millennium in 1966, an event of universal importance. Poland was born from its baptism in 966; the historic papacy of St. John Paul II was born from the millennium celebrations in 1966.

In 1948, a young bishop, Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981), would be named archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland. Save for his fellow Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, Cardinal Wyszynski was arguably the greatest Churchman of the 20th century.

For a biblical 33 years (1948 to 1981), he was an indomitable foe of atheistic communism, a master strategist who mobilized Polish piety to strengthen the culture and memory of the Polish nation during the dark night of Soviet oppression.

Cardinal Wyszynski was the great architect of religious resistance in Poland, confounding the communists in Warsaw and in Moscow and, it must be said, confusing officials in the Vatican who had little experience in dealing with tyrants. Without the space that Cardinal Wyszynski created, it would not have been possible for Cardinal Wojtyla to emerge and, as the first Polish pope, to vanquish the Soviet empire.

In 1953, the Polish communists arrested Cardinal Wyszynski. So great was his stature that the regime dared not put him in jail. They sought to separate him, though, from the Church, confining him to house arrest for three years. In 1956, with Budapest rising, the communists feared upheaval in Poland, and so released the cardinal — but only after he insisted on the terms of his release.

During his three years of confinement, Cardinal Wyszynski formulated a bold pastoral plan aimed at renewing the nation and shaking the foundations of totalitarian atheism in Poland.

In 1956, he launched the “Great Novena,” a nine-year program of preparation for the celebration of the millennium of Poland’s baptism in 1966. The novena, which involved prayer, catechesis and devotional exercises, solidified the Church as the true custodian of Poland’s national memory, identity and culture. The massive crowds led to conflict with the communist authorities, a conflict that Cardinal Wyszynski adeptly managed so that he won a long series of victories without provoking a crisis. So decisive was the Great Novena that Cardinal Wyszynski came to be known as the “Primate of the Millennium.”

As the crowning celebration of the millennium, Cardinal Wyszynski invited Pope Paul VI to the main celebration in Czestochowa on May 3, 1966. Paul VI accepted, but the communists refused to allow the Pope to come, but Cardinal Wyszynski won an even greater victory. During the Mass for the millennium, half a million Poles were present, despite government obstacles. Cardinal Wyszynski had an empty throne placed in the sanctuary, with a portrait of Pope Paul VI and a bouquet of white and yellow roses. The crude propagandists of the regime were no match for the pastoral brilliance of the primate.

Father Karol Wojytla was ordained a bishop during the Great Novena, in 1958, and became archbishop of Krakow before the millennium, in 1964. A gifted orator and public presence himself, Archbishop Wojtyla learned from the Great Novena the powerful impact of massive gatherings of the faithful and the possibility of focusing their attention over many years toward a historic anniversary.

The experience of the Great Novena complemented Cardinal Wojtyla’s own experience of gathering people together — youth, artists and scholars — and the popular piety of the Polish people. World Youth Days, begun in 1986, were one result of that pastoral experience; he knew that such a proposal would receive an enthusiastic response. The other result was the program John Paul proposed for the Great Jubilee of 2000, with its three years of preparation throughout the universal Church.

From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul spoke of the coming third millennium, going so far as to propose it as the key to interpreting his whole pontificate. His would speak of it as a “new springtime of evangelization,” just as 1966 sought to end the winter of Soviet domination.

In 2000, John Paul limited himself to only three trips — two to the biblical lands and the third to Fatima. Upon arriving, he went straight to the shrine to pray before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. After he rose from his knees, the Pope presented another gift to the shrine of Fatima, having already given it the bullet that tore through his body in the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981. He placed at the feet of the statue a ring given to him at the beginning of his pontificate by Cardinal Wyszynski (who would die two weeks later of cancer).

The ring was inscribed with the phrase Totus Tuus (“totally yours”). Cardinal Wyszynski told John Paul, on the day of his election in 1978, that his mission was to lead the Church into the third millennium. The “Primate of the Millennium” prophesied that John Paul would be the “Pope of the Millennium”; and in 2000 — thanks to the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981, John Paul was convinced — the prophesy was fulfilled.

All of this remains alive in the memory of the Polish Church and is why the bishops here were chagrined that the Holy Father might visit Czestochowa in only a private capacity. When they proposed a papal Mass, together with all of the bishops of Poland, Pope Francis agreed. It is likely that the idea of completing what Blessed Paul VI — the recent pope about whom Pope Francis speaks most favorably — was prevented from doing 50 years ago resonated with the Holy Father.  

Certainly St. John Paul ensured that the memories of the Polish millennium resonated. During the first day of the epic 1979 homecoming pilgrimage — the day which marked the beginning of the end of Soviet communism — John Paul repeatedly and sharply reminded the regime that they had refused Paul VI entry in 1966.

Flanked by Cardinal Wyszynski (whom the Church declared a “Servant of God” in 1989), John Paul II began his welcome address to the Polish state authorities with a quotation from Paul VI. With that rhetorical slap, repeated later in the same address, the Polish regime was reminded of why they feared a papal visit so much.

Pope John Paul then went to Warsaw’s Victory Square for the vigil Mass of Pentecost. If the baptism of Poland took place in 966, Poles say, 1979 in Warsaw was the confirmation of the nation. John Paul delivered the homily that would change history, and if he permitted himself a rhetorical slap earlier, he opened with a direct knockout punch.

“We know that the recently deceased Paul VI, the first pilgrim pope after so many centuries, ardently desired to set foot on the soil of Poland, especially at [Czestochowa],” John Paul began. “To the end of his life he kept this desire in his heart, and with it he went to the grave. And we feel that this desire — a desire so potent and so deeply rooted that it goes beyond the span of a pontificate — is being realized today in a way that it would have been difficult to foresee. And so we thank Divine Providence for having given Paul VI so strong a desire. Today it is granted to me to fulfill this desire of the deceased Pope Paul VI in the midst of you, beloved sons and daughters of my motherland. When I was … called by the votes of the cardinals from the chair of St. Stanislaus in Krakow to that of St. Peter in Rome, I immediately understood that it was for me to fulfill that desire, the desire that Paul VI had been unable to carry out at the millennium of the baptism of Poland.”

The 1979 visit marked the culmination of the Polish millennium of 1966 and the beginning of the Polish Pope leading the Church to the end of the second millennium.

“One motherland, my native one, has prepared me and sent me back to the other one, the larger one, the Catholic one, which embraces, as does my service, the whole world,” said John Paul II upon his return to Rome at the end of the 1979 pilgrimage. That preparation was synthesized above all in the Polish millennium, led by its primate. Pope Francis will celebrate that at Czestochowa.

Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

He is in Krakow to cover

World Youth Day for

the Register and EWTN.