KRAKOW, Poland — “Christ writes his calls in the living heart of man,” St. John Paul II said upon his return to Krakow in June of 1979. “And my heart was and has not ceased to be united with you, with this city, with this patrimony, with this ‘Polish Rome.’”
Of his first “Eternal City,” he explained:
Here, in this land, I was born. Here, in Krakow, I spent the greater part of my life, beginning with my enrollment in the Jagellonian University in 1938.
Here, I received the grace of my priestly vocation. I was consecrated Bishop in the Cathedral of Wawel, and in January 1964 I inherited the great patrimony of the Bishops of Krakow.
Even today, even without John Paul II walking the streets as he did in his youth and as a bishop, and returning as the first non-Italian pope in his native land, you feel his presence here.
Indeed, in this place, you find yourself unmistakably immersed in a city of ghosts.
My first full day here involved a lunch reflecting on the Nazi troops that once had meals in the same square, however civilized it may look today.
Civilized is a bit of a mixed bag. It does mean strip clubs and the slow propositioning of men on the streets. But it is counterbalanced with the other ghosts, alive and well in what George Weigel has described as a “City of Saints.” Eucharistic adoration in the oldest church in the area — right on the main market square — on Friday night was overflowing as nearby streets and squares named for Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Sienna betray the real women of these streets, protecting hearts, and with a cathedral to the Blessed Mother towering over the central gathering place.
Krakow is “the city where the 20th century happened,” George Weigel writes, “in a uniquely sinister way.” But it is also a “City of Saints,” as Weigel titles his book on the city and its spiritual legacy. It was the place “where the answer to the horrors of the 20th century was given, through a vision of the divine mercy that was carried to the world by a mission-driven man of God.”
You fall to your knees here — at least that has been my experience in my few days here. And while native son John Paul II and daughter St. Faustina may be most prevalent on World Youth Day banners, the spirit and energy of the place also unmistakably echoes Pope Francis, who arrives on July 27.
In his message for World Youth Day, which began July 27 and ends July 31 here, Pope Francis said:
I now turn to you, dear sons and daughters of the Polish nation! For me, it is a great gift of the Lord to visit you. You are a nation that throughout its history has experienced so many trials, some particularly difficult, and has persevered through the power of faith, upheld by the maternal hands of the Virgin Mary.
I am certain that my pilgrimage to the shrine of Czestochowa will immerse me in this proven faith and do me so much good. I thank you for your prayers in preparation for my visit. I thank the bishops and priests, the men and women religious and the lay faithful, especially families, to whom I will symbolically bring the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
The moral and spiritual “health” of a nation is seen in its families. That is why St. John Paul II showed such great concern for engaged couples, young married couples and families. Continue along this road!
He hit on a few realities here. His love of the Blessed Mother, one he shares with John Paul and implores us all to realize she is the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and your mother. Waiting with open arms as she is seen receiving her son from the cross in the Pieta.
He goes to the homeland of John Paul, who he called the pope of the family during his canonization Mass. For all the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia, the fruit of multi-year surveys and meetings with bishops and laypeople about challenges to family life throughout the world, it is, at root, about renewal of this civilizational foundation, one that is in deep crisis.
I’ve only been in Krakow for a few days, but it’s easy to see why the Holy Spirit brought the Holy Father here for World Youth Day this year. Here we see the needs, the wounds, walking by the homeless, walking past the young people still not quite yet turning in from the night before at 4 and 5 a.m. He comes here at a time where many in the West are exhausted and angry and scared.
Terrified might be the better word, in the face of, yes, terrorism, but uncertainty without peace — not just as a geopolitical reality, but of the heart, which can sometimes be an even more brutal evil, as it often lives in silence, eating away at the body and soul.
When Pope John Paul issued his own encyclical on mercy, he said:
In continuing the great task of implementing the Second Vatican Council, in which we can rightly see a new phase of the self-realization of the Church — in keeping with the epoch in which it has been our destiny to live — the Church herself must be constantly guided by the full consciousness that in this work it is not permissible for her, for any reason, to withdraw into herself. The reason for her existence is, in fact, to reveal God, that Father who allows us to “see” him in Christ.
No matter how strong the resistance of human history may be, no matter how marked the diversity of contemporary civilization, no matter how great the denial of God in the human world, so much the greater must be the Church’s closeness to that mystery which, hidden for centuries in God, was then truly shared with man, in time, through Jesus Christ.
He also said, in words that are as timely today as ever:
One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today ... is their inability ... to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness.
There’s been some chatter here about whether or not John Paul II might upstage Pope Francis during World Youth Day. Such speculation misses the point of the pilgrimage event for the some 2.5 million young people expected. All WYD paths point to Christ.
In their pre-planning, my hosts, the Knights of Columbus — who are running a Mercy Centre at Tauron Arena, which holds 18,000 people — have kept their eye on the ball, focusing on the themes of vocation, cross, witness and freedom. As head Knight Carl Anderson put it in a statement, “Pope Francis has called us to be instruments of God’s mercy and he has chosen as the WYD 2016 theme, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’”
Describing the point of the Mercy Centre, he said that pilgrims there “will be reminded that Christian life is a gift that come from God and leads one to a personal encounter and knowledge of his mercy. The experience of God’s mercy fills one with gratitude, spurring acts of charity and leading to a discovery of one’s vocation through a sincere gift of self.”
That charity is made possible by knowing mercy itself, mercy himself, as both popes point to the name of God being mercy. In his book “City of Saints,” which is the essential pilgrim’s guide to drinking in the holy ones these streets have known. Weigel writes:
In one of the darkest periods of human wickedness, God had made the light of divine mercy shine through the visions of the heart of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, given to a self-effacing and humble Polish nun between 1931-1938.
The culturally stricken and shattered world of the late 20th and 21st-first centuries, John Paul believed, could find healing in the revelation of divine mercy bestowed on Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska — a healing that, like the Divine Mercy devotion she promoted, was not for Krakow only, but was intended to be taken from Krakow to the whole world.
And so it is that the first pope from the Americas seems to promote it incessantly, so that a world that doesn’t know the mercy of God, can be healed and become the people of the Beatitudes, the missionary apostles Christ calls us to be — that professed Christians must be.
If you can steal away time to watch some of the events in Krakow, or read the texts, you might just see him in the eyes of the pilgrims here and the memories that overflow from this place, as if from the glorified wounds in the side of Christ himself.