Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

Poland's Hereafter

A lapsed Catholic makes a pilgrimage to a country in mourning

In August of 2005, I was walking down Ulica Nowy Swiat (which roughly translates as New World Street), a boutique-lined avenue in Warsaw's chaotic core. One moment, I was staring at a nun who had stopped to chat with a man on a bicycle; the next, I was face-to-face with Pope John Paul II. He was waving from the top of a folding card table. He was wearing white and smiling like a movie star. He was very very small.

Behind the table stood a white-haired vendor with the look of a man who was guarding rather than selling. Among his trinkets were decorated boxes, embroidered tea towels and the requisite display of wooden dolls with bowling-pin hips that house smaller and smaller versions of themselves. Because this was Poland, though, one of these dolls was the grinning former pope.

Nuns and popes. Already I felt surrounded. It didn't help that I'd spent the night in the guest room of a residence for an order of priests. I should have guessed this was how it would be. Poland, after all, is the most Catholic country in the world, where a good 90 percent of the population remains devout. What I couldn't have anticipated, however, was that, twenty-four hours into my first trip here, I would already be reacquainted with my doubting-Thomas anxieties. My lack, that is, of whatever it takes to cross to the other side. The holy side.

I picked up the pope and twisted him open. Inside was a smaller John Paul, in a different pose. Inside that, another. And so on, until his tiny face was a mere blur of colours. I turned the doll in the air, not knowing whether it was meant to be funny or reverent-or simply mercenary. It was light and cheaply made but cost zl60 (roughly cdn$20), enough for a reasonable meal for two, even in price-inflated Warsaw. I slipped the doll back on the table, thanked the sour-faced man and walked away.

Two days later I was in Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla-before he be-came the first Polish pope-had spent his youth. This is the place where, in defiance of German occupation, he studied underground for the priesthood in the early nineteen-forties; where he taught theology; where, as a priest, he pushed for the construction of the first Catholic church in the Soviet steel-town development Nowa Huta; where he served as archbishop; and where he, as pope, once wept, before getting on the plane to return to the Vatican after a rare visit home.

I can't help but compare that record to mine. As a teen, I considered my babysitting gigs in the meeting room of my church a legitimate substitute for actually sitting through Mass myself. When I did attend, which was rarely, I often showed up late. Let's not get started on my eight years of living with a man out of wedlock (not always the same one). I have also been known to heartily criticize the late pope's stance on birth control, gay marriage, the ordination of women-you name it.

Ho-hum. Your typical fallen North American Catholic. But here in Poland, I was way out of my depth. This is a country where Sunday Mass in many churches is offered every ninety minutes and people stop off for confession on their way home from work. I do have a reverent streak, but all this Catholicism was beyond me. A few weeks in Krakow and I was beginning to feel nostalgic over that little pope doll back in Warsaw, standing there stoically among all the other souvenirs.

John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. It was now August. In a country such as Canada, four months would have been ample time for the mourning of a celebrated public figure to peak and wane. In Krakow, the months had only heightened and intensified the loss-and thus, conversely, his presence.

He was in or on (or both) every local church, sculpted into statues and onto plaques. Heaped at the base of even the smallest shrines were hundreds of candles in coloured-glass jars. The windows of every local bookstore burst with dust-jacket reproductions of his face; piled inside were his poems, his essays, his likenesses, his prayers. He was in the historic Jagellonian University, where he once studied and lectured and where it was possible to peer at his transcripts in a long glass display case in a hushed room.

He looked out cheerfully, or solemnly, from postcards crammed on racks in the Rynek Glówny. He was deep underground inside the historic salt mine at Wieliczka, carved entirely out of salt. He waved jauntily from the balcony of the Sukiennice, the historic cloth hall, in the form of a blown-up reproduction advertising a photographic exhibition of himself. He was on two trees in the garden outside the Franciscan church: someone had screwed plastic-sleeved magazine covers into the trunks, featuring images of you-know-who.

He could not be found, however, in a particular window of the stately Palac Biskupski-3 Franciszkanska Street-where, on each visit to Krakow, he would appear with a greeting. It was before this window that Poles gathered in the thousands while he was dying in far-off Rome. The whole "far-off in Rome" thing didn't stop them from standing quietly on the street with candles, looking up as though he might at any moment pop his head out to offer a blessing. You still couldn't walk by without seeing a cluster of people on the sidewalk, faces upturned, mouthing prayers.

On every city block was graffiti about Krakow's rival football teams, Cracovia and Wisla. Every time I noticed such artwork on an apartment wall, I recalled the historic truce my friend Eva-a German student who'd been in Krakow at the time-described to me: the two teams and 15,000 of their frequently violent supporters stood together in honour of the ailing pontiff. The Planty, a winding ribbon of parkland (once the moat) that surrounds the city, called up another tale she'd told me: on the night of April 8, a live performance of Mozart's Requiem by the Krakow Symphony and Philharmonic Choir was broadcast through the old town starting at 9:37 pm, the hour of the pope's passing six nights prior. The lament floated through the stone-paved medieval streets where Krakowians, in the thousands, paraded solemnly with lights.

He came to life in a lecture I attended, "The Roman Catholic Church and Poland," given by social anthropologist Annamaria Orla-Bukowski, who moved from Chicago to Poland in the nineteen-eighties. Orla-Bukowski explained how it was the church that improbably kept Polish culture alive while the country was partitioned for 123 years-that's four generations-up until the end of the First World War, thus neatly tying up national identity with religion. Further oppression of both people and church under German and then Soviet occupation from 1939 on solidified the Catholic Church's position as "a symbol of the Polish people, sharing the same fate." Orla-Bukowski explained how the Pope's visit here in 1979 was on the lips of "every other person" in Gdansk one year later during the Solidarity strikes that would ultimately turn the tide against Communism. "They said they were doing it for him," says Orla-Bukowski.

He had even been transubstantiated into a little clump of melted, hardened wax on the ground outside the famous Mariacki church. As Orla-Bukowski explained one afternoon over drinks in a nearby café, the city had laid sheet metal beneath the part of the church wall on which a plaque depicting the pope hangs. The metal was meant to protect the stones of the ancient market floor from molten wax. But it failed to contain the endless flow. Wax had run down the metal into tram tracks, which Orla-Bukowski remembered watching workers scrape clean in the early mornings on the days leading up to the pope's death. City officials diligently rounded up tens upon tens of thousands of burnt-out candles each night and pleaded for people to stop. They pleaded, but the candles kept coming.

By the time I was taken to Wadowice, John Paul II's hometown (taken by goodhearted relatives in the same spirit that Canadians ferry visitors to Niagara Falls), I was poped out. Visiting the crowded church in which he was baptized, walking through the rooms of the second-floor flat where he lived as a boy, partaking of the recently established tradition of eating a Wadowice kremówki (the local cream pastry John Paul once mentioned enjoying as a child), I couldn't muster a single ounce of appreciation. I mean, What do I know about sustained faith in heroes? About believing in leaders and saints? What do I know about actually needing them?

After five weeks of overkill-shrines, shrines, everywhere I turned-I realized I would likely never understand what it was the Poles needed and were getting from the extreme remembrance of John Paul. I hadn't lived what they'd lived; I'd only been told. And so I asked a cousin who was with me in Wadowice, as we hovered near a crowded souvenir stand in the local church, what she thought John Paul would make of all the fuss. She smiled and said, a little ruefully, "He always told us not to put up statues for him. Just to live good lives."

Good advice. But if his habit of beatifying and canonizing saints is any evidence, the Polish pope also understood the need for heroes, particularly local ones-particularly in hard-done-by places. If Karol Wojtyla is now where everyone in Poland thinks he is, if that "presence" I felt was inspired by more than just statues, postcards and dolls, he must understand that need more than ever.