Today is a historic day for many Poles all over the world. On this day, the first Polish Pope was made a saint. To me, personally, this is a very amazing event, and a day for celebration not only for those of Polish heritage, but for freedom-loving people all over the world.
In August of 1978, I was just starting my first year as a teacher in a Catholic High School in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Pacelli High School. I’d never taught before and had just completed a year of seminary–I had studied to be a priest and was taking a break from that. So in that August, I walked into a classroom fresh with an attitude of hope and idealism and the part I could play in the formation of young people. I walked into this in the midst of a new Pope being elected, John Paul I. Of course there was a lot of talk about the Papacy in my classes, since the elect of the new Pope was fresh in everyone’s mind.
Image our surprise only a month later to learn of the death of this new Pope who had brought a serene and calm sense of moderation to the church. So we all watched the process for the next election of the Pope, the ceremony, the tradition, watching for the white or black smoke…it was a good learning experience.
And then it happened, there was white smoke, a signal that a new Pole had been elected! But the news was even more astounding to all of us–the new Pope was not only Polish, but a man who had visited Stevens Point two years early as Cardinal Karol Wojtyła! For many people of Stevens Point who had seen and heard him speak and offer mass two years earlier, this was indeed a memorable and joyous occasion.
Stevens Point is a heavily Polish town, many are descendants of the Kashubs of northwest Poland, and more from other areas of Poland. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła visited the area because of it’s heavy Polish descent. He visited a local farm, gave a lecture at the University, said Mass at a local predominantly Polish parish, and visited with religious sisters, some of whom were a Polish order, the Felicians. It was at the time a memorable visit, but made all the more so by his election to the Papacy.
I remember at the time, the great excitement and sense of pride felt by my students and the people of Stevens Point. It was pride as a person of Polish descent, pride that for the first time ever, a Pole had been elected Pope, and pride by many that they’d been fortunate enough to meet/see him previously. It was a great feeling.
Through the years, I’ve followed the comings and going of Pope John Paul II. He visited many countries, always preaching a message of peace. As Pope, he set a lot of “firsts.” He visited 129 countries. First Pope to visit the White House. First Pope to visit the western wall in Jerusalem, and the list goes on.
But the story of his most amazing journey is not widely known, though it’s consequences literally changed the world. In 1979, he visited his native Poland for the first time. It was, truly, a visit that changed the course of history. The communist government of Poland was anxious to show Poland–a deeply and devoutly Catholic country–that event though there was a Polish Pope, that did not diminish their capacity to govern, oppress, and direct Polish society. Boy, were they wrong! In the estimation of many scholars, it was his trip to Poland in 1979 that lead to the formation of the Solidarity trade union (Solidarność) and the eventual fall of Communism.
But here in the USA, we really don’t know much about what really went on during that first visit to Poland, nor the scope of it. The Communists were interested in using his visit for their own propaganda–to show that they were still in charge. The movie Nine Days that Changed the World really tells the whole story. And I have heard the story told by people in Poland who lived through it, and people who saw the Pope when he was there. This is the rest of the story.
When he arrived in Warsaw, the first thing Pope John Paul II did was kiss the ground, the ground of his native land. The motorcade through Warsaw saw the streets lined with two million people. 2,000,000. The open air Mass at Victory Square was attended by 250,000 people. To see him during that first visit to Poland (and subsequent visits), people walked dozens of miles, waited patiently in huge throngs of people, if only to hear a few words or to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Polish pride was enormous.
The Pope’s visit to Poland culminated 8 days later in Kraków, the city in which he’d been Cardinal/Archbishop. That day, June 10, 1979, began with a Mass on the Krakow commons attended by a crowd of two to three million people. During his visit to Poland, it’s estimated that 13 million people saw him. He brought a glimmer of hope to a nation that had been oppressed by communism for 35 years, a nation that has time and again risen from the ashes. And he set helped set in motion and support the underpinnings of what would eventually become the Solidarity Trade Union and helped lead to the eventual downfall of Communism and the freedom of Poland and many other countries.
So, today, as a Polak myself (American by birth, Polish in my heart), I am proud to see a new saint, Saint John Paul II. I did not always agree with his rather conservative church policies and views, but I wholeheartedly agree with his humanistic views. I, too, am a proud Pole today.