Kraków, Poland – The streetcars in Kraków sported yellow-and-white and blue-and-white pennants. They fluttered as the trams raced to and from the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, arriving full and leaving empty. The 20-minute fare was, as usual, 2.80 złoty. Hopeful vendors stood by the Divine Mercy tram stop and in the underpass to Sister Faustina Street, hands full of yellow-and-white plastic flags bearing the image of the soon-to-be canonized Jan Paweł II.
The links between the city of Kraków and its newest saint are so strong and organic, it would be better to describe them as veins rather than as ties. The young Karol Wojtyła first moved to Kraków with his widowed father in 1938. He attended university classes here, but was forced to drop out after the German invasion of September 1939. In danger of deportation to Germany to work as forced labor, Karol worked at various jobs in or around Kraków, including as a stone cutter in a quarry. On his way to and from the quarry, he would pray at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A plaque in the church now proudly commemorates his devotion.
The Nazis’ plan for Poland was to liquidate the intelligentsia and reduce the Poles to a slave race of barely literate farmers, laborers, and servants; to this end, Poles were banned from higher education during the German occupation. Thus, when Karol heard his call to the priesthood and attended seminary in Kraków, he did so in secret.
Karol was ordained in 1946 by Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha, Cardinal Archbishop of Kraków, and consecrated an auxiliary bishop of Kraków in 1958, aged only 38. In 1964, he was named archbishop of Kraków. Crowds habitually gathered outside the Archbishop’s Palace to hear him speak from the balcony; the doors are now permanently marked with his portrait.
Kraków is thus very much the city of John Paul II, and the city celebrated his canonization in style: concerts, exhibits, film openings, vigils, Masses—even a six-hour papal relay race. On the eve of the canonizations, the Shrine of the Divine Mercy played host to an outdoor rock concert; there followed an all-night vigil. Both the shrine and its neighboring church, the unfinished Sanctuary of John Paul II, were lit up from below like storybook castles.
Bells rang for Divine Mercy Sunday on the morning of April 27, and the homilist at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help remembered to mention the other saint of the day, John XXIII. His photograph appeared in some churches, but in Kraków he seemed to be an afterthought.
“I’m not sure many people [in Poland] have any sort of idea who he was,” said a Polish student, Piotr Zapałowicz, 25, “and neither did they come to the ceremony for him.”
This ceremony, the most important ceremony in Kraków, was at the Shrine of the Divine Mercy on Sunday morning. There thousands of Poles gathered in the park to stand and silently watch the canonization Mass in Rome televised over an enormous LED screen in front of the church. A Polish voice translated over the Italian readings.
The sky was grey and thunderstorms had been predicted, but the sun broke through the clouds and warmed the city. On a hill above the Shrine, dozens looked down on the scene below, the transmitted Roman Mass still perfectly audible. On the other side of the hilltop park, another crowd watched the same Mass outside the Sanctuary of John Paul II. Then, at a certain point in the Roman celebration, both transmissions ended, and the Polish Masses began. On the crest of the hill, the worshippers listened, knelt, stood, prayed, and sang in concert with the thousands below.
By noon the day had become very warm indeed. Some of the worshippers outside the Shrine of the Divine Mercy unpacked lunches and sat on the grass, heedless of the battalion of priests who, simultaneously sheltered and identified by yellow umbrellas, walked through the crowds looking for communicants. Other worshippers lined up outside little huts advertising ice cream, waffles, and coffee. Some children carried balloons: Peppa Pig and a green tractor floated above a cross-bearer on the kiosk-lined avenue back to ulica Zakopianska and the streetcars. On the sidewalk, two activists with clipboards held a banner with a photo from a gay pride parade; it read “Tacy chcą edukować twoje dzieci. Powstrazymaj ich!” (“These people want to educate your children. Stop them!”) A pretty girl offered their petition to passersby; beside me two young men in jackets signed with alacrity.
The Divine Mercy celebrations, with their combination of religious devotion, national pride, national causes, vendors, food, and family fun, seemed wonderfully medieval in spirit. No one age group dominated; there were many young people, and many young families with children. Nuns with habits resembling that of Sister Faustina were in evidence among the crowds, and priests heard confessions on the wide lawns behind the shrine.
Celebrations continued through the afternoon and evening. At the famous Benedictine abbey at nearby Tyniec, the visiting Ealing Abbey Choir offered a program of Bruckner, Palestrina, Tallis, Poulenc, and contemporary composer Paweł Łukaszewski. The baroque chapel was respectably full, if not packed, and gilt angels soared above a framed portrait of St. John Paul II. The image of St. John XXIII was nowhere to be seen.
But the Italian pope-saint was much more in evidence to the northwest, in Wrocław (former Breslau). In the city’s most ancient neighborhood, the island of Ostrów Tumski, there exists a diocesan home for retired priests which is named after John XXIII. Here at last was a photo of St. John, embedded in the wall, and it was even bigger than the one for St. John Paul taped to the inside of its windows. St. John’s portrait was festooned with yellow and white and a vase of yellow and white flowers shone on the stone steps underneath. There is also a large grey statue of St. John XXIII beside the Oder River, “Pacem In Terris” carved into its base.
The church on Wroclaw’s Saint Edith Stein Park treated the saints almost equally: a heavenly blue banner of St. John Paul hung on the left, while a fiery red banner of St. John hung on the right. However the left side also featured a newly embroidered white-and-gold banner celebrating St. John Paul; the implication was that although this flag will be joyfully carried at many a procession in the future, no such banner will be needed for St. John XXIII.
“Poland has interesting priorities,” growled a nearby Polish youth. “The Lord Jesus is Number Three. Our Lady Mary is Number Two. And John Paul II is Number One.”
But the new saint himself would vigorously resist this assessment. All over Wrocław appeared yellow and white posters of the Polish pope declaring, “Jezus Chrystus Pierwszy!”—“Jesus Christ First!”