In The Footsteps Of Pope John Paul II


Poland first appeared as a separate state in the 10th century which also saw the introduction of Christianity. From the 14th to the 16th century its power was extended under the Jagiellon dynasty. After defeat by the Turks, under Sulieman the Magnificent, at the battle of Mohacs in 1526 the Jagiellon lost there thrones of Hungary and Bohemia to the Habsburg. Nevertheless the Poles rallied and in 1683 led by John III Sobieski defeated the Turks. Foreign intervention in the 18th century culminated in partition by Russia, Austria and Prussia and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the Congress Kingdom of Poland was created under the Russian Crown. Essentially it was part of the Austro Hungarian empire. After World War I its independence was proclaimed but in 1939 it was invaded by Germany and in 1949 was taken over by the Russians who controlled it until the revolt by the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa resulted in its overthrow in 1989.

For over one thousand years Poland has been a bulwark of Catholicism, fighting against the horrors of pagan invasions and looking to Catholicism for a sense of social and national unity. When Poland was portioned in the 19th century, many turned to the church for solace and during the communistic era underground resistance meetings were surreptitiously held in churched. The fact that Poland was 95% Catholic prevented the Communists from closing down churches and schools. When Fr. Jim Caffrey announced that he intended to lead a pilgrimage in the steps of John Paul II, I immediately decided to travel with the parish group.

Fri. 15th May: At 4.50 a.m. Micheal Chawke and his minibus were at my door and we drove to Iona Road were we picked up some more pilgrims. We arrived in the airport before 5.20 a.m. There was very little delay in handing in our luggage and getting the boarding passed. The plane left on time at 7.30 a.m. and the flight only took a little over two and a half hours. The weather in Krakow was mild and sunny and we were met by our guide, Andrew, whose English was perfect. We also met the five pilgrims who were not parishioners including Fr. Tom Stack the recently retired parish priest from Milltown. The journey to our Hotel Monopol took half an hour. The hotel was well situated just outside the walls of the old city. We were allotted our rooms at 2.00 p.m. Andrew brought us on a walking tour of the city.

Krakow obtained rights as a city in 1257 and since then has largely survived in its original form. The centre of the city is the market square and it still retains its old warm charm. It has 20 churches within its walls and all kinds of architecture are represented - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Happily very little modernisation has taken place in the churches. St. Mary's Basilica is on the Market Square and the altarpiece, stained glass windows of the nave and the blue starred ceiling took my breath away. When the tour concluded some of the pilgrims returned to the hotel to rest awhile others attended evening mass in the Dominican Church. Most pilgrims had dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Sat. 16th May: Weather was dry in the morning but heavy rain fell in the afternoon and evening. At 9.00 a.m. we walked to the Wawel (castle) which overlooks the River Vistula. It is the Polish equivalent of Buckingham Palace ad Westminster Abbey rolled into one. The cathedral has stood here since 1020 but the first two were destroyed by fire and the current building was consecrated in 1364. It boasts 18 chapels and at its centre is the imposing tomb of the former Bishop of Krakow, St. Stanislaus. The history of Poland is in this building. A little distance away is the house where Pope John Paul II lived while he was Archbishop of Krakow. We also visited the Franciscan church which has a copy of the Shroud of Turin.

At 2.00 p.m. We set off for Auschwitz and Birkenau - one pilgrim did not join the group but remained in the city. Words do no justice to the horror of Auschwitz - it is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have visited here. In April 1940 a Nazi commission decided to open a concentration camp primarily because of the excellent transport links it enjoyed. The wall of death, against which thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS, has been turned into a memorial festooned with flowers, while inside the horrors of the death factory have been faithfully preserved. In cell 18 Maximilian Kolbe was sentenced to death by starvation after offering his life to save another inmate. The tour concluded with the gas chamber and crematoria, whose two furnaces were capable of burning 350 corpses daily. The gallows used to hang the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss in 1947 stands outside. It was a relief to get back to the bus and return to Krakow. Some of the pilgrims attended Mass in some of the numerous churches. The number of people attending the churches is as it was in Ireland in the 1950's.

Sun. 17th May: The pilgrims divided into two groups- one group remained in Krakow and the others went to Czestochowa is I went with the later group. Czestochowa is the home of the Black Madonna and is more than a two hour drive. It was well worth the effort to get there and I was privileged to attend Mass in the Shrine Chapel and watched the veil being lowered on the Madonna as the organ and trumpets played. Like Knock the area around the Shrine is very well laid out. The Stations of the Cross represent all that is best in contemporary art. They were painted by Jerzy Duda Gracz, an outstanding Polish painter who was born in 1941. The stations consist of 18 painting and were unveiled in April 2001 and reflect the tragedy of Poland from 1939 to1989. The dress of those in the background is 20th century dress and the soldiery are in SS uniforms. Some of the people in the background are dressed in concentration camp garb. There stations are not comforting in an aesthetic sense but they do emphasize the triumph of good over evil.

The pilgrims who remained in Karkow attended Mass celebrated by Fr. Jim and Fr. Tom Stack in the Franciscan Church. The readers were St. Bridget Devane and Jerry Bolger and the hymn singing was led by Bernadette Boland.

Mon. 18th May: At 9.00 a.m. we set of for the salt mines at Wieliczka. Ever since the Stone Age salt has been mined hear - the original way the salt was extracted was to boil the briny water to extract the salt - it was then the only known preservative. The mine features nine floors ranging from 64 meters to 327 meters in depth - we descended more than 800 steps and walked through chambers full of carvings and statues. There are a number of chapels but the main chamber has been turned into a veritable church - it is as big as most country churches - and is known as the Chapel of St. Kinga. The bas-relief wall carvings, made over a thirty year period by three talented miners, depict scenes from the Bible - it was visited by Pope John Paul II. The tour ended in the underground restaurant souvenir shop. Fortunately the ascent to the surface was by a rattling mining lift. We got back to our hotel in the afternoon and most pilgrims rested - others attended Mass later.

Tues. 19th May: Overcast and showery. At 12 noon we departed for a visit to the Convent were Sr. Faustina lived. It is now known as the Convent of Devine Mercy. The old Convent chapel is as it was when Sr. Faustina was alive but a spacious modern church has been built to cater for the large number of pilgrims. It is very late 20th century and the crypt has a number of various sized chapels to cater for small and large pilgrimages. The campus consists of shops and a restaurant where we had lunch.

After lunch we journeyed to Wadowice where Pope John Paul II was born and spent his youth. We visited the apartment were the family lived - it is now a museum - and consists many of the ceremonial vestments worn by him. The Parish Priest and Fr. Stack con-celebrated Mass in one of the side chapels in the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary's Sacrifice. The readers were Sr. Bridget Devane and Betty O' Brien and once again Bernadette Boland led the hymn singing. It was hear that the Pope was baptised in 1920, received his First Holy Communion and Confirmation. There has been a church in Wadowice since 1325 and the present church dates from 1798 -it is a late Baroque style with a tower front facade. The Church was raised to a Minor Basilica by the Pope on 25th March 1992.

After the visit to Wadowice we did not return to the hotel but drove to a restaurant in the old town centre for a final dinner - beetroot soup and spare ribs featured on the menu.

Wed. 20th May: The bus left for the airport at 9.30 a.m. On the way the Parish Priest thanked our guide, Andrew and the driver for taking such care of us durning our pilgrimage and made a suitable presentation to each. The plane left on time and Michael Chawke and his minibus greeted us at Dublin and drove the parishioners home. It was a never-to-be forgotten pilgrimage. Thank you Fr. Jim - I hope it will be the first of many such journeys.

By Mary McCarthy