Thursday, June 08, 2006


Mormons claim that Jesus came to teach among the people of North and South America after His resurrection. Notice the nice pagan pyramids in the background!

So, at the main train station in Krakow today, I ran into a bunch of Mormon missionaries, from, of all places....Utah! I was walking away, when I saw a group of four people, two men with the title of "starszy," (elder), and to women with "siostra," (sister). Kind of ironic, since I am a Catholic from Utah, and the Mormons are even here in Krakow (I have seen them before). I decided to stop and talk with them for a while, and they were happy to meet another fellow American. It turned out that I have a mutual friend with one of them. Perhaps we will meet again to talk about their faith...I wonder what it must be like for them here in Krakow, where about 99% of the people are Catholic, and most of them practicing, at that...

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pope in Poland

Summer seems to be in full swing here in Krakow, until the Holy Father came, and the weather decided to turn cold and ugly. However, that did not dampen the Polish spirit here during the historic visit of our Holy Father.

Though it has been a week and a half since the visit of Pope Benedict, happily, people are still talking about the importance of his visit, as well as the lasting effect that it will have on the country as a whole, and on him as well. The visit was amazing, and even trying to describe it in anything less than book-length format is quite impossible. From the profound clarity and simplicity of his messages, to the amazing turnout of 700,000 youth from around the world at the “mini-World Youth Day” on Saturday night, to the rainbow at Auschwitz, to the profound and radiating joy from the face of Pope Benedict, it is impossible to capture the entire visit in a single phrase, or with a single description. One that may perhaps be adequate is “venit, vidit, vincit.”

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the Vicar of Christ and the “Peter of our times” came to Poland, in the “footsteps of his beloved predecessor.” Here, in the heart of ancient Slavic culture, the German pope experienced the profound movement of the Holy Spirit in the fresh faith of a European country surrounded by neighbors who are withering away in their rationalistic secular humanism. Here, in the city of John Paul II, Pope Benedict’s faith and hope were strengthened. This phenomenon was amazing and visible, since the Holy Father began his visit quite awkwardly and uncomfortably. By the time he arrived in Krakow, however, and especially at the youth rally, he was clearly moved by the energy and the rapport he had with the youth on Blonia Krakowskie, the gigantic meadow in the middle of the city. Here, on this ancient marshland and grazing pasture, now turned into a city park (the largest open meadow in any major European city), the Holy Father met with the young people of Eastern Europe and of the world, where he encouraged them to “build their life on the rock,” with the strength and hope of their faith, which requires them to not be afraid to be unpopular. In an age of moral relativism and of secular humanism, so many people think that their faith somehow prevents them or inhibits them from experiencing the fullness of their human condition. Yet, repeating his inaugural homily, the Holy Father reiterated that, “Christ takes nothing away.” It is only in Christ that man experiences the fullness of his humanity.

Himself encouraging the youth to “remain strong in the faith,” the Holy Father was encouraged by their zeal and their spirit. Now, as a person who attended both World Youth Days in Toronto and in Cologne, I can say that I have never seen this much energy and excitement in a crowd with the Holy Father. The Holy Spirit was definitely present, as was the communion that makes up the Church. Present were Ukrainian Catholics, Catholics from Belarus, Slovakia, Croatia, Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Russia, Sweden, Chicago, as well as some Chaldeans from Iraq! Here, not only the “future of the Church” was present, but also the “present of the Church.” For we know that Pope Benedict reminded us, also in his inaugural homily from April last year, that “the Church is young…the Church is alive.” And it was with these words in my mind that I took in all that was happening before me. I was, once again, blessed to be able to be part of a historic event, an event in which the Vicar of Christ, Christ Himself, asked the Polish Church to “be an example” and to “share the gift of its faith” with the rest of Europe and with the world.

Of course, the focus of the pilgrimage was the life of John Paul II, who was present with Pope Benedict throughout the trip, in his visits to places important in the life of the beloved pope, such as Wadowice, Czestochowa, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, and the “papal window” in the Metropolitan Curia. It was at this window that we greeted the Holy Father when he arrived in Krakow on Friday, where thousands of youth gathered and awaited the “unplanned” and “spontaneous” appearance that everybody knew would occur. This, of course, was simply a continuation of the tradition that was set by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who would greet pilgrims from this window, a tradition that he continued later as Pope John Paul the Great. The growing impatience of the crowd prompted the chanting of, “Cardinal, let the pope out,” as well as “Come to the window, come to the window!” The minute the Holy Father stepped out, we were able to see that this was already a different Benedict, much more at-ease, and clearly excited to be with this crowd in Krakow. These feelings of mutual attraction and sympathy continued throughout the visit.

Thus, Pope Benedict, came, but he also saw. He saw the faith of the young “Generation JPII.” He saw that there is a growing number of movements within the Polish Church which are seeking to be attached sentimentally to John Paul, but are also trying to incorporate the beauty of his teachings into their daily lives. This was evident in the fact that many, many young married couples with large families were invited to give their testimonies both before the Vigil on Saturday, as well as the Mass on Sunday. In a country where simply surviving economically is becoming very difficult, where the gap between the very rich and “the rest” (who are basically poor) is widening, and where various consumerist and western materialist mentalities have taken hold, the married couples encouraged young Poles to “not be afraid,” and to give their lives over completely over to the Divine Mercy, and to pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Young priests were also invited to give their testimonies about the beauties of the celibate life. Ironically, these were less important, since there is surely no vocational crisis to the priesthood or religious life in Poland. Rather, there is an increasing attack on the dignity of marriage, both through the media, as well as from an economic standpoint, which often makes it impossible for young couples to get married and raise a family.

Yet, the Holy Father was able to see the rising number of young people who refuse to give into the mentality that has taken hold of the West, and is causing an increased dissatisfaction with life and leading young people to grapple with the question of the meaning of life. Fortunately, the faith remains strong in the young generation here, though not without its own problems. Yet, the witness of these young people gave great encouragement and much hope to others, and showed that Poland does not need to go the way of the West. The Holy Father himself reminded the Polish youth that their faith is a great treasure, and that they need to “build their house on a firm foundation,” refusing to give into the relativism of the modern world, which creates a shaky foundation and only leads to destruction and despair. John Paul II so often taught about the meaning of true freedom, which can only come through love, which requires great sacrifice. Freedom without sacrifice, freedom without love, is not true freedom, and leads to a confusion of the very meaning of freedom itself. Man seeks to liberate himself by casting off Christ and the moral natural law, thus cutting himself off from the very source of that freedom which only Christ and His law can give.

While the Church in the West struggles through a lack of vocations, deep interior problems which will require much purification and healing, the Church in Poland is alive—and now the young Catholics in Poland can live out their faith in order to build a just society, that their faith in Christ may become a fountain of life and a source of Truth in a modern society that often seeks to cast off the existence of truth itself. Thus, Pope Benedict saw the problems that the young face here, and was encouraged in his own faith. The Holy Spirit is alive here in Poland, in a very unique and unimaginable way, and the Church has to respond with an open heart and be prepared for the struggle ahead, yet the “JPII Generation” has received all that it needs in order to build a just society, based on truth and on love.

Having come and seen the faith of the Poles, Pope Benedict also conquered. He was won over by the faith of the Poles, but he also conquered the initial uneasiness and shyness on the part of the Poles. Many Poles wondered what the visit would be like. Would he speak Polish? Would he try to imitate John Paul II? What was he going to say, as a German pope visiting the Polish nation? Would he understand the cultural situation? Yet, as the newspapers said, this pope “won over the hearts of the Poles” in a way that nobody had expected.

When the Holy Father returned to his residence at the Curia after the evening vigil on Saturday, he mentioned to Cardinal Dziwisz that he was “amazed by and infatuated with” with Polish youth, and the warmth with which he was received. He realized that the love that they showed him was the same love that they showed to “their” John Paul, but in reality, it was a love for the Petrine Ministry, for the Vicar of Christ. Their love and joy at seeing the Holy Father does not stem from the fact that they are seeing Pope John Paul, or Pope Benedict, but rather, Peter himself, who was given the task to “tend Christ’s sheep."

Not only was Pope Benedict inspired and won over by the enthusiasm of the crowd, but he also won over the crowd, in a mutual exchange of love and of joy. Of course, the most exciting were the “unplanned” visits at the papal window, where on one night, the pilgrims remained until at least 1:00 a.m., singing and chanting. At the end of the Sunday Mass, Pope Benedict was to walk off and turn right, to enter the popemobile and exit the field. Instead, he caught his security off guard, and turning left, he descended the steps of the stage and walked down among the crowd of pilgrims, meeting with them and blessing them. To me, this was an amazing moment, because I recalled the Holy Father’s wish to “come down, and to look into every person’s eyes and to meet them.” This was not some sort of sentimental wish of an elderly man, but rather, a genuine desire to meet the people among whom the faith of John Paul II ripened, matured, and flourished. Clearly moved by the beautiful Liturgy, Pope Benedict broke protocol and came down to be among his flock. Only a few minutes later, after walking a considerable distance, did he enter the popemobile and leave “his beloved Krakow.” Later, at his farewell from the papal window, he wished thanked everybody for the wonderful reception in Krakow, and left with the words, “see you in Rome, and if God allows, again in Krakow.” Clearly, he intends to come back and to teach and strengthen the faith of one of the few remaining Catholic countries in Europe.

Clearly, Pope Benedict XVI came to the land of John Paul II, saw the vibrancy and freshness of the faith, and conquered the hearts of the Poles, through faith, hope, and love. This historic visit was, of course, marked by many amazing “miracles,” such as the appearance of a rainbow at the moment when the Holy Father was praying in Auschwitz, asking for forgiveness for the crimes which took place there. In order that there would be no confusion, God sent a rainbow, as “a sign of his eternal covenant,” showing the people in a dramatic way that the prayers of his faithful servant were heard. All that remains now, after the visit, are the muddy fields, were the feet of one and a half million pilgrims trampled the grass, the occasional papal flags (which seem to be appearing more often in recent days, and are put up permanently, even in such places as the public university), and the memories and photos which adorn shops and streets. Yet, the task that has been assigned by this Holy Father is that the nation learns to love, that people learn to love one another and contribute, together, to the building of a just society, a “civilization of love,” based on charity, as Pope Benedict reminds us in Deus Caritas Est. The memories may last, the exciting time has come and gone, but the Holy Father has reminded us that “being a Christian is a beautiful thing,” and there is not a moment in the life of the Christian that is not exciting. Now the plant that has been further nourished by this apostolic visit must grow and mature, in order to produce an abundance of fruit. A great task lies ahead, and we must pray that Poland will be ready and willing to complete it.