Waiting for Benedict

Reconstructed column of King Zygmunt III VasaWARSAW, POLAND -- Warsaw is one of my favorite cities; not because it’s beautiful – in fact much of it is filled with soulless architecture built by the Communists. Yet I love it because, unlike any other city I know, it bears witness to man’s indomitable spirit. In 1944, Poles, tired of Nazi domination, revolted in the Warsaw Uprising. A ramshackle civilian army of 23,000, including children, housewives, and priests, fought against the Germans for 63 days, while waiting for the West to come to their aid. When they didn’t come and the Poles could hold out no longer, the survivors slipped out of harm’s way in a three-day march through the city’s sewers to escape the Nazis. In retaliation, Hitler ordered the destruction of the city -- nothing in Warsaw over three feet was left standing.

Sixty years later, Warsaw is a thriving, vibrant city with an old town much like any other European capital. Yet, this old town is really not so old. Rebuilt with meticulous accuracy, it takes a keen eye to see it’s not five or six hundred years old, but only sixty. Using salvaged photographs, the Poles recaptured the glory of their city’s past and maintained the old architecture, winding streets and open piazzas. Only the old cathedral deliberately betrays their efforts to hide the previous devastation -- an old crucifix is a reminder of Poland’s darkest nights, the wood is charred black and the corpus has chunks burned out of it. Such an effort to rebuild would be difficult under any circumstances but the resilient Poles managed this under the boot of communism.

Not far from the old town is Victory Square, the site of John Paul II’s first visit to Poland in 1979 after becoming pope. It was here that untold numbers of Poles shouted together in the face of communism: “We want God! We want God!” And it was God they got -- or at least the freedom to worship him as they wished. After 10 more years of struggle, John Paul helped usher in a type of independence not felt by this nation since 1863.

Warsaw burns in World War IIThere is a new pope coming to this old town -- a German one. Poland has had continual tensions with Germany since the second century, which came to a fevered pitch with the Nazi occupation. But this German is a different sort. Not only is he the pope, but a trusted friend of John Paul. This fact has created much curiosity but also a warm openness to what this new pope might have to say to the Polish nation.

Work is underway for Pope Benedict’s historic visit to Warsaw this week. While requests for viewing tickets have been in large demand, some wonder about the four venues he will be visiting. Warsaw and Krakow are natural choices. But visits to Wadowice (John Paul’s hometown) and Kalavaria Zebrzydowska, (a popular pilgrimage site in a small village outside of Krakow) represent a new --  and possibly ill-advised -- strategy to the papal visit. These places are off the beaten path, making it difficult for swelling crowds to get in and out. Additionally, while both are of historic interest in John Paul’s life, a walk down memory lane may not be the best choice for what some Poles consider to be a more important purpose for Benedict’s visit.

The Polish Church under Communism grew strong, offering resistance, consolation and truth when it couldn’t be found elsewhere. But as memories of the totalitarian regime fade, the Church’s influence has weakened. John Paul warned of a growing malaise in religious faith as Poland prospered. He urged the Poles to never forget the Catholic roots from which they sprung.

Pope Benedict, keenly aware of these cultural trends in Poland and the rest of Europe, including falling birth rates and diminishing Church attendance, has made the trip’s motto “Remain strong in the Faith” in an effort to curtail a secularised Poland. After overcoming the daunting obstacles of the twentieth century the Trojan horse of secularism could be the worst threat yet to Polish faith and culture.

Radek Sikorski, Polish Defence Minister, remarked days after John Paul’s death that a child hears his father’s voice better once the father is gone. Yet this may not hold true for Poland. Agata Gerwel, a doctor in the north of Poland, and her mother, Maria, believe people have quickly forgotten John Paul in their day-to-day lives. “His death was so sad for all of Poland -- during his funeral, there was not a car on the street -- and yet now, it seems as though people have moved on from thinking about him, absorbed in their own worries and concerns.”

Although not a Pole and lacking the same charisma and charm, which endeared the Poles to their beloved John Paul, Benedict has new and different virtues to offer this great nation, including a different kind of quiet authority balanced with deep yet simple theological insights. Perhaps John Paul had become too familiar for the Poles to really heed his words -- perhaps they will better hear his message from a new voice, a new face, a new Pontiff.

Carrie Gress is an American studying in Poland. She is also a research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC.


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  • Carrie Gress