Pope John Paul II is the first non-Italian pope since 1523.
His pontificate is already the seventh longest in history. He has broken all records be creating 157 Cardinals, 296 saints and 976 blesseds. He has travelled abroad on 100 occasions, visiting 122 countries.
He is the first Polish pope (and probably the last), the first pope to enter a mosque and pray with Muslims, the first to enter a synagogue and pray with Jews, the first to visit Canada, to wear a wrist watch, to ski, to publish a book in office and to have a website. His mass in Manila in 1995 is reckoned to have drawn the largest crowd that has ever gathered for one person.
Yet for all that he is a sentimental, home-sick, ex-actor, obsessed with Poland. He returned to Poland in 1979, soon after his election to the papacy, and again in 1983, 1987, 1991 (twice), 1995, 1997 and 1999.
His early gaffe about the Jews and Auschwitz betrayed the innate anti-Semitism that he shares with many Poles of his generation. But all that now lies in the past. His Opus Dei advisers find it easier these days to ensure that the mumbled remarks of the frail old man are politically correct.
His visit to Krakow in August this year, was sensational. The Sunday Mass in Krakow’s Blonie Park drew 2.2 million people, making it the largest single gathering in Polish history. The police estimated that an additional one million people surrounded the park, unable to get in, so that crowd may have surpassed even that in Manila.
But John Paul II fulfilled the principal purpose of his pilgrimage to Poland on 17 August when he dedicated what he called "The world centre of devotion to the merciful Jesus". To understand the significance of this event we must recall some of his previous exploits in this field.
His visit to Fatima put Portugal on the map. This followed the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square in My 1981, from which he was delivered through the intervention of the Virgin of Fatima, or so he believed.
Similarly, his immensely popular, fast track beatification and canonisation of the mystic stigmatic, Padre Pio, has served Italy well in bringing millions of pilgrims to the impoverished south. His revamping of the drab Sanctuary of Divine love in Rome by the opening of a new ultra modern, subterranean Marian shrine for the international Marian Conference, was popular with the Romans for the same reason.
But none of this did anything for the Pope’s beloved homeland. The main pilgrim venue in Poland is the Shrine of the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora, located in central southern Poland, near Czestochowa (pronounced ‘Chen-sto-ho-vah’). Jasna Gora attracts 4.5 million pilgrims a year from 80 countries but it is off the beaten track and lacks the pilgrim chic of Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, or Santiago de Compostella.
Visitors with less religious zeal but who nevertheless bring the much needed western currency, prefer Krakow, the beautiful historical capital of Poland. They usually see Auschwitz at the same time. Should the Lord tarry in judgement; they are likely in the not too distant future to want to see the shrines around Krakow associated with the early life of Saint John Paul II, who will no doubt have been hastily canonised following his death.
But for the present, this pope has done his homeland inestimable service in raising the profile of a local Krakow mystic and stigmatic who possesses the global appeal of a Padre Pio.
Mary Faustina Kowalska
As there was no obvious candidate for beatification, the necessary legends have had to be created. John Paul II’s ingenuity and determination in this matter, as in much else, is notable. For by 18th April 1993, with a huge crowd filling St Peters Square, he was able to beatify one Mary Faustina Kowalska, Apostle of Divine Mercy, to take on his much needed role.
The author has open before him 1,650 pages describing the earlier life of John Paul II in the most intricate detail. They are written by his three English language biographers and published after the beatification of Mary Faustina Kowalska. Yet she is not mentioned.
Nevertheless Roman Catholic news agencies insist that the Pope realised her greatness from his earliest days. One item runs, "It’s the latest chapter in the pope’s ongoing interest in the saint, who lived several years in the pontiff’s Archdiocese of Krakow and died there in 1938 at age 33. As a young man in the same city, the pope used to visit a sanctuary dedicated to her after her death. After he became Archbishop of Krakow in the 1960s, he pressed the Vatican for years to lift the ban on St. Faustina’s writings. Convinced that Rome’s opposition was based on a faulty translation of her diary, he had it re-translated – and the ban was lifted in 1978, six months before his election as pope. The second encyclical of his pontificate, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), published in 1980, was dedicated to the divine mercy theme that drove St. Faustina’s spiritual life."
Why if the ban was lifted in 1978 was she not canonised earlier? For we are not dealing here with a vision of Mary, but of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who said to this Polish nun, "Secretary of my most profound mystery, know that your task is to write down everything that I make known to you about my mercy…….".
The Inquisition steps in
The truth seems to be that when the Pope was Archbishop of Krakow, the nuns of Kowalska’s convent gave him a hard time in their desire to have Faustina recognised.
Faustina’s writings took the form of an embarrassingly long and detailed diary of the words of Christ in the prose of an uneducated, theologically illiterate, peasant girl. The diary was suppressed by the Inquisition in Rome. The ambitious Archbishop, who later snatched the papal chair from his own cardinal, must have known that to object to the ruling of the Inquisition would be playing with fire.
Poor John Paul II complained in 1965, "They are bombarding me with requests to begin the process (of Canonisation)". The Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, pressed him to fight the Vatican ban on Faustina. He initiated proceedings but dropped them again promptly in the face of the Vatican’s displeasure, saying that he was "treading on glass". Indeed, in order to be seen as an obedient priest by the Vatican, he strictly forbade his priests to celebrate Mass at the "Alter of Mercy".
With the fall of Communism came John Paul II’s opportunity. Co-operating with Fr. Seraphim Michalenko of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, vice-postulator for Faustina’s cause for canonisation, he converted the peasant girl’s prose into something vaguely acceptable as divine revelation.
Fr Gianfranco Girotti, the inquisitor who had condemned her writings, was surely guilty of understatement when he dismissed Kowalska’s writings as too "categorical". They are full of divine imperatives and prophecies of doom, all purporting to come direct from Christ, and sufficient to send shudders down the corporate Vatican spine. For example, "I am giving them the last hope of salvation; that is, the feast of my mercy. If they will not adore my mercy, they will perish for all eternity".
Apostle of Mercy
The Vatican even bowed to Christ’s demand, via Kowalska, that she be called his Apostle of Mercy. Rome now maintains that the "year (Kowalska) spent in the convent were filled with extraordinary gifts, such as revelations, visions, hidden stigmata, participation in the Passion of the Lord, bilocation, the reading of human souls, prophecy and the rare gift of mystical espousal and marriage (to Christ)".
The Marians in the Immaculate Conception now have their own Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which has flourished since World War II.
The Divine Mercy movement in America began in 1939, when a priest of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception escaped Nazi-occupied Poland with a photo of painting of Jesus Christ as He appeared to Kowalska. Christ himself, she claimed, directed her to paint the original.
This psychedelic image has, not surprisingly, a peculiarly Polish cultural ambience. Christ has two cones apex up, one ghostly pink and the other watery coloured, issuing from the image’s breast. The words JEZU UFAM TOBIE (Jesus I trust in you) across the bottom of the image are also Christ’s direction to Kowalska. The right hand is raised in blessing but not with the usual two fingers of papal iconography. Rather it appears as in children’s stories and bespeaks Faustina’s isolation in pre-war Poland.
The miraculous healings necessary for her beatification were provided by people worryingly close to the beatification process. Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, vice-postulator for Faustina’s cause for canonisation, himself provided the first miracle by taking one Maureen Digan to the old shrine in Poland.
The Pope provided the second. He personally picked out Ugo Festa whilst holding the Divine Mercy image in St Peters Square.
Since nobody seemed to be forthcoming with the third miracle, the Vatican again came to the rescue. It announced on 20th December 1995 that the healing of Father Ron Pytel of Baltimore, Maryland, fulfilled the requirement.
£13 million complex
The old shrine to Faustina is now incorporated into a new, ultra modern, oval worship area and pilgrim complex in a Krakow suburb, at a cost of over £13 million and the pope’s inauguration of it has endowed Poland with a substantial tourist asset. Her Diary has been translated into "over a dozen languages". John Paul II is seen by millions of Roman Catholic people as leader of the Divine Mercy movement. Anyone with internet access and real player software can see re-creations of the infallible Church’s claim that Kowalska was directed by Christ himself to paint his image and keep the Diary of his extensive commands to her at www.marian.org/divinemercy/real_video/index.himl.
Furthermore Cardinal Macharski, Archbishop of Krakow, was in the Stockbridge National Shrine of The Divine Mercy for Divine Mercy Sunday on April 7th this year in time to get the dollars flowing to Poland for the inauguration of the new shrine, thus cementing relationships for the future.
Rome’s problem with Poland
Whether this will halt Poland’s slide into secularism remains to be seen. Behind the scenes, the Vatican has had serious problems with the new Polish state. Devout Romanist Lech Walesa soon fell as President and let the communists back into power. Then there was the scandalous revelation that the disgraced Vatican bank had secretly funnelled huge sums into Solidarity via Switzerland.
Most disastrous of all was the failure of the Communist dominated government after Walesa to ratify a detailed Concordat hammered out with the earlier Solidarity dominated government. It was signed on 28 July 1993 but not ratified until 25 March 1998. The Vatican was greatly offended.
Although the Concordat states that "the Sate guarantees the Catholic Church… the free and public practice of her mission," the free market economy has taken its toll of the faithful. There is widespread unemployment (about 18% of the working class), poverty and crime. Some 95% of Poland’s population of 39 million are staunch Counter Reformation Catholics in culture, but only 10% follow the teaching of the Church.
There is to be a referendum on joining the E. U. next year, but any readers who fear that their jobs might be lost to a cheap Polish work force have an unusual ally in John Paul II. He regrets the loss of Polonia semper fidelis – Poland always faithful - and he is thought to be sympathetic to the widespread opposition to the EU to be found in the worst hit, backward, rural areas where parish priests are becoming increasingly militant as their existence and their way of life comes under threat. They are likely to exercise a large influence on the referendum’s outcome.