I expected the tour to Pope John Paul II’s – sorry Saint John Paul II’s – village of Wadowice to be composed of pious old ladies and arthritic old men. Instead, they are all energetic thirty-somethings, many of them singles who could be out on a bonding tour from their gum, Today’s Catholics are LOUD.
About an hour and a half’s time out of Krakow, our bus arrives at a low-rise nondescript apartment block house next to the Wadowice church. Maybe because we’re on a tour, we jump the not inconsiderable queue and go straight to the second floor where Karol Wojtyla’s childhood home has become a Polish shrine.
Signs in Polish and English explain that little Karol, born on May 18, 1920, was traditionally named after his father. His brother died when he was 13; he never met his sister who died before he was born and he knew his mother little, as she died when he was nine. So for most of his life, it was Karol Sr who was his sole family.
At the age of 18, Karol Jr moved to Krakow to study philology and when the Germans closed down the Uni in 1940, he attended underground classes. He was ordained in 1946 and in 1950 returned to Wadowice as a priest. His rise in the Catholic church to a bishop of Krakow and then Pope in 1979 was quick and as the first non-Italian Pope for centuries, he was rather exceptional.
The first time JPII came over to Poland as a Pope, the communists decreed that no one should attend mass – in fact 500,000 attended. Along with Solidarity’s strikes, it was the first big crack in Communist authority behind the Iron Curtain. In the Archbishop’s palace in Krakow, there is a window now graced with the Pope’s picture where John Paul II stood and had theological discussions with the people below, even cracking the occasional joke. When Pope Benedict arrived and tried to speak Polish from the balcony he mispronounced a word and instead spoke a profanity. Some people just don’t have the knack.
The flat looks at a common corridor on one side, so has external windows only one side: the church side. I stand in the actual room where little Karol slept. His sole window looked across the narrow street to the Wadowice church wall. It faced a sundial with an inscription that reads: Time flies, eternity awaits. Now we know what happened to the boy whose sole view was this inscription, it becomes even more poignant.
The flat, which has been merged with the flat next door to make the Pope museum larger, contains many personal effects of the Pope. A copy of the Papal arms with the two keys to Paradise which he shares with St Peter. Many books and homilies written about him. Pictures of him as a choir boy, in a football team, as an actor in his Krakow youth, as a rambler in the Beskids mountains, at Planty Gardens in Krakow with his aunt..
Karol and Karol used a stove for heating and a furnace to cook and iron. Next to them lie his skis, his axes and ice picks, ropes for climbing and his water bottle. Karol Wojtyla liked the outdoors. No wonder he travelled all around the world in his time as a Pope.
The final room is rather saccharine. A rose upon a Bible with an inscription written upon his death with a yellow and white ribbon, the papal colours; a portrait of his mother with a laurel halo on her head with a blue and white ribbon, the Madonna’s colours. At last, I can understand Mariolatry: a saint without a family of his own, devoted to God, must have been born from holy loins., and in the last room, the portrait of his mother is as Mary-like as can be without the Holy Inquisition putting the boot in.
The Basilica of the Virgin Mary next door has a John Paul II statue outside with holy water bubbling from below. People drink it, bottle it, wash their faces in it. Inside, there is a John Paul II chapel – built in anticipation of his beautification – with a wooden statue of the Pope, and the inscription ‘Santo Subito’. In the opposite chapel, there’s a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary that has been drawing pilgrims for decades.
The church faces a large, green square, unsurprisingly renamed Plac Jana Pawla II. I sit at a coffee shop to order a coffee and a cake: Kremowka, the Pope’s favourite. A speaker above me blasts All Night Long by Lionel Richie. I try the cream cakes and I can taste the calories; it’s a good thing the good Pope left in 1979 and did not continue consuming such a cholesterol bomb. I bet the deprivation added a decade to his lifespan.
As I leave, the speaker starts playing Holiday by Madonna. No, seriously.