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John Paul II - Poland's great gift to mankind

April 01, 2005

Robert Strybel,
Warsaw Correspondent
(Written on the 25th anniversary of John Paul II's papacy)
WARSAW - There probably aren't too many Poles or Polonians now at least in their mid-30s who do not remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard that a Pole had been elected to the papacy. I was teaching college, high school and adult-education Polish in Bay City, Michigan and vicinity when I first heard the news. An elderly Polish-American school-crossing guard at St. Stanislaus Kostka school asked me: "Did you hear that Cardinal Wyszynski was elected pope?" Some people even thought another of those stupid jokes was coming when they first heard on the radio things like "We now have a Polish pope!"
But it soon turned out it was not Cardinal Wyszynski and it was definitely not a joke. On Oct. 16, 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, had become the first non-Italian pontiff in more than four-and-a-half centuries. The announcement "Habemus papam" ("We have a pope") and the appearance of the Polish-born prelate on a balcony overlooking St. Peter's square was beamed by satellite to millions of people around the globe.
Jubilation swept Poland and Polonia - church-bells rang, Masses of thanksgiving were celebrated and trips to Rome were planned. As a founding member of the Saginaw Valley Friends of Polish Culture, I received numerous local requests for frameable pictures of John Paul II, whose appearance was not yet widely known among Polonia, and Father Wladyslaw Gowin of the Society of Christ graciously helped me out.
Celebrations are again taking place 25 years later. Anniversary Masses, commemorative exhibitions, TV specials and other events are highlighting the achievements and experiences of one of Christendom's longest-serving popes. Rather than the wonder, surprise and hope of a quarter-century ago, it is a time to look back over the major milestones of a truly unique pontificate, whose wide-ranging implications have had an impact not only for the world's more than one billion Roman Catholics.
Born in the southern town of Wadowice in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains on May 18, 1920, Karol Wojtyla lost his mother, Emilia, née Kaczorowska, when he was nine years old. The product of a devoutly Catholic home, in his youth Lolek (as he was known by family and friends) served as an altar boy and belonged to a Marian Sodality and the Association of Catholic Youth (Stowarzyszenie Mlodziezy Katolickiej). By the age of 21, he was the only living member of his immediate family. His elder brother and only sibling, a medical doctor, died of a contagious disease in 1932 and his father went on to his reward in 1940.
Among the hallmarks of his dynamic pontificate have been numerous firsts and superlatives - a tendency that revealed itself much earlier in his career. He was undoubtedly the first pope ever to have worked in a stone quarry and chemical plant, act in underground theater plays and study for the priesthood at a clandestine seminary due to the restrictions of Nazi occupation.
In 1958, Rev. Karol Wojtyla was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII and became the youngest member of the Polish Episcopate. He became archbishop in 1963 and in 1967 Pope Paul VI made him the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. A sports-loving outdoorsman, the young Father Wojtyla would take his students on canoe and camping trips as well as hikes through the mountains. He enjoyed skiing and continued to pursue the sport in the Italian Alps during the early years of his pontificate. He endeared himself to the people of the Krakow area by fighting for a church in the industrial suburb of Nowa Huta, which Poland's Soviet-backed regime had wanted to be a godless "communist showcase."
John Paul II is undoubtedly the most widely traveled pope in history, having made some 100 foreign pilgrimages to all the world's inhabited continents. And no other pope in history was known to speak as many languages as the Polish-born pontiff. In addition to his native tongue and ecclesiastical Latin, he is fluent in Italian, French, Spanish, German, English and Russian, which he has occasion to use on a nearly daily basis, and has a working knowledge of a dozen other languages as well. He is able to read and pronounce many more foreign tongues from texts written in phonetic transcription. But he writes all his encyclicals in his native Polish and has them translated into Italian and other languages.
Whatever else may be said of the Holy Father, he seems likely to go down in history as the pope of ecumenism and peace. No other Roman Catholic leader has come close in bringing people of diverse religions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds together. John Paul II was the first pope to enter a Jewish synagogue, pray at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, one of Judaism's most sacred sites, and visit a Muslim mosque. He annulled the excommunication of Martin Luther and hosted common prayer meetings with representatives of all the world's major religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and Animists.
In the 1980s, the pope also inspired a reconciliation process between the Roman Catholic Church and Polonia's own Polish National Catholic Church. The dialogue led to the "wiping-out" of the excommunication of PNCC organizer Bishop Franciszek Hodur and reaffirmed the validity of sacraments dispensed by the Kosciol Narodowy. As a result, the Polish National Catholic Holy Orders of several priests accepted into the RC Church were acknowledged as valid, and unlike Anglican clergy converting to Roman Catholicism, they did not have to be re-ordained.
The Holy Father's greatest unfulfilled hope is his desire to make a pilgrimage to Russia and seek reconciliation with that country's Eastern Orthodox Church. He has visited various Orthodox countries, but Russia's Eastern Orthodox leaders strongly oppose such a visit, fearful of losing some of its followers to Catholicism.
The Polish-born pontiff has always been an internationally acknowledged force for peace in all world trouble spots, but has never openly sided with any of the warring parties. All his pronouncements on the subject reflect the pain he experiences at the thought of innocent casualties, the dead, wounded, orphaned children and general destruction of people's lifelong accomplishments. Although an ardent opponent of totalitarian communism, he nevertheless refused to publicly bless capitalism and has always called on the rich and powerful to share their abundance with those less fortunate.
The pope helped to inspire Polish workers when on his first papal visit to his homeland in 1979 he invoked the Holy Spirit to "descend and renew this land." One year later, Solidarnosc, the Soviet bloc's first independent union emerged amid widespread labor unrest and ultimately led in 1989 to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But during successive visits to his native land, the former Krakow archbishop warned his compatriots against the "civilization of death," his code-name for the empty, shallow and short-sighted, ideology of godless, pleasure-seeking materialism poisoning much of today's modern world.
John Paul'ss deteriorating health has fueled periodic speculations that he might soon step down. He is able to painfully walk only very short distances, his speech is often slurred and Parkinson's disease causes his left hand to tremble. But the Polish-born pope seems to attach little importance to his own convenience and well-being and ignores personal discomfort and pain. "I know exactly how long I will remain pope - as long as God lets me," is the way he has replied to such queries. Vatican insiders describe him as "a man of frail physical health but with a keen intellect and a heart full of ardent love for God and mankind." He can truly be referred to as Poland?s greatest gift to today's selfish, confused and troubled world.

Posted by Am-Pol Eagle at April 1, 2005 04:17 PM
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