As we traveled across Poland on a recent parish pilgrimage, we watched two films about Pope St. John Paul the Great. The first was Karol: The Man Who Became Pope. The second was Pope John Paul II, starring Cary Elwes and Jon Voight. The first film concentrates on John Paul’s life up to his election to the papacy, while the second continues with Jon Voight’s astounding portrayal of the pope’s accomplishments through his decline and to his death. We watched the films as our tour bus as it made its way from Krakow to Warsaw, the beautiful countryside of Poland rolling before us.
The geographical combined with the biographical, and the geographical and biographical combined with the historical and theological. In John Paul’s life the different strands of twentieth-century European history combined in a remarkable way. As a bridge between West and East, Catholic Poland is arguably the heart of Europe, and as the heart beats within the body, so the tumultuous history and passionate faith of the Polish people beats at the heart of Europe. Karol Wojtyla captures the story and captivates the world. When the history books are written, he will emerge as one of the most powerful, passionate, and dynamic personalities of the age.
As a college student in Krakow, he was caught up in the middle of the 1939 Nazi invasion of his country. He had to study for the priesthood in secret while working in a stone quarry on the outskirts of the city. Ordained in secret, his life as a young priest and university professor was overshadowed first by the Nazi threat, and then by the oppression of the Soviet occupation of his country. Both regimes considered the Catholic authorities as their enemy, but with shrewd intelligence and determination John Paul opposed the regimes by outwitting them with Christian passive resistance. His surprise election to the throne of Peter in 1978 granted him the global audience to work behind the scenes for their eventual overthrow.
What is remarkable in the unfolding of these events is the role played by an unknown nun in Krakow. Sister Faustina Kowalska was one of ten children. Brought up in a rural hovel and poorly educated, she longed to join a religious order. Finally being accepted into the Sisters of Mercy in Krakow, she served as a kitchen servant and portress in the monastery. This simple, enclosed nun was granted visions of the resurrected Christ and told to propagate the image we now know as the Divine Mercy. What is not so well known are the remarkable connections between the poor, hidden nun and the intellectual, dynamic pope.
Sister Faustina died in her convent in the outskirts of Krakow in 1938. That same year Karol Wojtyla arrived in the city from his boyhood home in Wadowice to attend university. Two years later, the stone quarry where he worked was adjacent to Faustina’s convent. The image of the Divine Mercy carries a powerful message. The resurrected Christ steps forward from the dark background as if stepping out of the tomb. He pulls back his robe so that rays of red and white might burst forth. His other hand is raised in welcome and blessing. As an image the message is wordless and universal. Coming from the heart of Poland, the message is as poignant as it is powerful.
Being comparatively unlettered, Sister Faustina wrote her diary phonetically, and because of faulty transcription and translation, after the war, the Vatican ruled that her writings were not theologically sound, and banned the already-burgeoning devotion. But near the end of Vatican II, then-Cardinal Wojtyla launched her cause for canonization, and Pope Paul VI soon ordered a re-evaluation of Faustina, approving her writings and lifting the ban on the Divine Mercy devotion. In the year 2000, now-Pope John Paul II canonized the hidden nun of Krakow. The message and the image can now be seen in proper historical context.
During the dark second half of the twentieth century, Poland was the focus of one of the greatest horrors of humanity’s history. The Nazi invasion of Poland sparked the Second World War. The Polish people were driven from their homes, starved and oppressed first by the Nazis and then for most of the next forty years by the Soviets. Worst of all, it was in Poland that the most infamous Nazi death camps were located. It is right to ask, “Where was God in all this?”
The answer is that God was with an almost illiterate nun in a convent in Krakow. When she died in 1938, God was with an unknown college student named Karol Wojtyla. The seeds of the message of God’s mercy to the world were planted in the exact place where the very heart of darkness and the very worst examples of humanity’s inhumanity were to be unleashed. God was not absent in the darkest corner of Europe, but like the seed of the crucified Christ, planted in the tomb to burst forth in victory, he was planting the seed of the Divine Mercy image in the midst of the darkness to burst forth later through the combined work of the hidden nun and the dynamic pope.
Today when you visit Krakow two great basilicas have risen in a remarkable way. A modern structure seating 5,000 people has been built in the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy convent. On Divine Mercy Sunday they welcome hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. A few hundred yards away, on the site of the stone quarry where he worked, a new basilica honoring Pope St John Paul II is being completed. The two basilicas—one to the hidden nun and the other to the great pope—are lined up and connected by a walkway and bridge, and both are a permanent witness that the oppression, cruelty, and fear propagated by the pagan and atheistic ideologies were ultimately defeated by the power and passion of Poland.
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