The history of papal pilgrimages to Poland starts with a visit which never took place. In 1966 the Polish bishops invited Paul VI to visit our country to celebrate the millennium of Poland’s Baptism and while the pope expressed his wish to come, the communist regime would not hear of it.
John Paul II visited Poland as many as nine times. He set out on seven apostolic journeys to his Homeland, in the years 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991 (in two parts), 1997, 1999, and 2002. Moreover, in 1995, during his pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, the pope visited the Diocese of Bielsko and Żywiec. Benedict XVI visited Poland one, in 2006. The pilgrimage of Pope Francis will be, then, an eleventh stay of St. Peter’s successor in our country.
1979: a pilgrimage of awakening
“Let Your Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth; of this land!” – these prophetic words uttered by John Paul II went down in history. The pope observed that man cannot understand himself without Christ, and extended this to the entire nation. The pope’s indication of the dignity of work during a meeting with workers in Jasna Góra inspired “Solidarity”. In Gniezno the pope recalled the significance of culture, a common good which singles Poles out as a nation.
In Gniezno, too, John Paul II said: “Does not Christ want, does not the Holy Spirit deem it necessary that this Polish pope, the Slavic pope, should reveal now the spiritual unity of the Christian Europe, which consists of two grand traditions, of the West and the East”. The pope presented his visions of a united Europe, built with Christianity and based on ethics during his meeting with bishops. In Jasna Góra he spoke about spiritual freedom despite slavery.
“Never should one nation develop at the expense of another, at the price of its enslavement, conquest, exploitation, and death”, called John Paul II in the camp in Auschwitz. Referring to St. Maximilian Kolbe’s sacrifice, he stressed that its significance remains as much alive as ever. When in the camp, he made a stop at the plaques commemorating the martyrdom of nations in the Polish, Hebrew and Russian languages.
The pilgrimage led to an extraordinary spiritual awakening of Poles. It showed a community built around faith and tradition; the “Solidarity” movement would have been impossible without this pilgrimage. The meaning of the pope’s words reverberated far away from our country and the fall of communism would have been virtually impossible without it. The papal vision of a united Europe continues to be a signpost.
1983: a pilgrimage of hope
The pilgrimage was marked by martial law in Poland. The pope’s message of Christian hope was, therefore, all the more important. In Warsaw John Paul II spoke about the preconditions for a moral victory of the nation. In Jasna Góra he recalled that when the nation is free, the state is sovereign.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”, urged John Paul II in Niepokalanów, calling this evangelical program difficult, yet doable and indispensable. He also stressed that “Love is stronger than death”.
The pilgrimage was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in connection with the six centuries of presence of her Image in Jasna Góra. It was there, explaining the contents of the Jasna Góra Appeal, that the pope spoke the famous words to young people: “You must demand of yourselves, even if others did not demand of you!”.
To show paragons of moral renewal, i.e. prayer and service for the poor, the pope beatified: Brother Albert Chmielowski and Rafał Kalinowski in Błonia in Kraków, and Mother Urszula Ledóchowska in Poznań. In Kraków John Paul II dedicated a new church in Mistrzejowice, a centre of anti-communist resistance. As he reminded the bishops during a meeting with them, “Truth is the precondition for social renewal”. Moreover, John Paul II met in Chochołowska Valley Lech Wałęsa, then ignored by the regime.
1987: a pilgrimage of personal identity and solidarity
The third pilgrimage was connected with the Second National Eucharistic Congress.
In Westerplatte the pope spoke to young people that each and every one of us has their Westerplatte, “an obligation, a duty one cannot possibly shake off. One must not”. He made multiple references to the “Solidarity”, outlawed by the regime at that time. In his famous sermon in the Gdańsk district of Zaspa he both directly stood up for “S” and showed the meaning of the term; for him Solidarity was a call to bear one another’s burdens. “Struggle cannot prevail over solidarity”, he called. In Gdynia the pope underscored the significance of “S” for Europe and the world. In Lublin he spoke highly of the Polish countryside.
Addressing representatives of the communist regime, the Holy Father demanded respect and participation in decision-making processes for his compatriots. He prayed at the grave of Fr. Popiełuszko, assassinated by the communist security force officers, and made many references to the martyr-priest.
In Szczecin he observed that social renewal takes place via families. In Lublin, beatifying Karolina Kózkówna, murdered for the defence of her virginity, he said that saints testify to human dignity. The pope visited the Majdanek camp, and in Warsaw beatified Bishop Michał Kozal, who died a martyr’s death in the Dachau camp. At the Catholic University of Lublin the pope spoke about the responsibilities of Academia and in Warsaw, during a meeting with representatives of culture he spoke about a vocation to create beauty. In Tarnów the Pontiff addressed the clergy, observing that material goods should not isolate them from the laity. In Jasna Góra he said that “Man cannot be truly free only in love”. In a Unionteks textile mill in Łódź he indicated the vocation of women, for public activities, but first and foremost in the family. The pope moreover paid an unexpected visit to the Greek Catholics.
In front of the Warsaw Palace of Culture, a symbol of the communist regime, the pope spoke about Christ’s sacrifice, His Resurrection and His love, despite sin and atheism. There also he called for a New Evangelisation of Europe and Poland.
1991: pilgrimage of the Decalogue
During the fourth pilgrimage, the first one to an independent Poland, John Paul II focused his teaching on the Decalogue. He warned his compatriots against treating freedom as an absolute. In Olsztyn he said: “Freedom is no freedom without the truth. It is an illusion and even slavery”.
John Paul II spoke in defence of the right to life. In Radom he observed that no one has the right to legalise the killing of the innocent and the defenceless; here he recalled the Holocaust as well as indicated the “cemeteries of the unborn”. He noticed the crisis of the family.
The pope stressed that the new challenges demand reaction of the Church. This was to be helped by the Second Polish Plenary Synod, which he himself opened. In the message to the Polish bishops, the Pontiff observed that while in the past the Church had created a space of the defence of the rights of the individual and the nation, now “the human person must find in the Church a space for a defence against themselves, as it were, against an improper exercise of their freedom”.
In Lubaczów the Holy Father differentiated between justified ideological neutrality from eliminating holiness from public life, which results in atheisation. In Warsaw he warned that a pick-and-choose approach to values jeopardises the very foundation of social order. He recalled that the Church does not want to dominate any area of public life, but only serve as a witness to the Gospel. In Koszalin the pope presented the social ideal involving a pursuit of justice, concord, solidarity, and peace.
In Włocławek he warned against the culture of death, “lust and abuse, which is rampant among us and calls itself European”. In Warsaw he stressed that the eradication of the Christian foundations of culture would be a threat to all Europeans, including those who do not believe in God.
The people he beatified during the pilgrimage, Bishop Józef Pelczar, Sister Bolesława Lament, Franciscan friar Rafał Chyliński, and the mystic Aniela Salawa showcase different but equally valid models of sainthood. John Paul II spoke about the necessity of witness of men and women religious and the laity.
In Przemyśl he concluded an argument concerning the local Greek Catholic cathedral. He called for the evangelisation in the East, visited an Orthodox and Lutheran church, met with representatives of other Churches and with the Jews.
In August 1991, John Paul II returned to Poland for the World Youth Day in Jasna Góra. Addressing over one million young people, the pope called on Europe to breathe with its two lungs, the eastern and the western one.
1995: a call for people of conscience
The short 1995 visit went down as a papal call for people of conscience. As John Paul II observed in Skoczów, “The testing time of Polish consciences is not over. Can history run against the current of consciences? What would be the price? Precisely, at what price? The price, regrettably, is the deep wounds in the moral tissue of the nation, and first of all in the souls of Poles, which have not yet healed, which need healing for a long time to come”. The pope moreover stressed that the persecution of the Church has by no means stopped today.
1997: a pilgrimage of the Eucharist
The 1997 was connected with the 46th International Eucharistic Congress in Wrocław. The pope highlighted the social aspect of the Eucharist: “Beware of all the temptations of exploitation. Otherwise, each breaking of the Eucharistic bread will be a warning to all of you!”. At the end of the Congress, the pope called on Christians to unite: “There is no way out of the path of ecumenism!”.
“There will be no Europe unless it becomes the community of Spirit”, said John Paul II over the tomb of St. Wojciech/Adalbert in Gniezno on the millennium of his death. Presidents of seven countries participated in the celebrations. The pope called on the Church in Poland to open up to Europe, to which she can offer e.g. faith and custom for the continent’s spiritual benefit.
In Wrocław John Paul II recalled that confusion in the area of freedom makes freedom wither: “Genuine freedom always comes at a price”. He also recalled that the Church has always preached the Gospel of freedom.
In Zakopane, in the mountains he dearly loved, he called: “Sursum corda – Lift up your hearts!”. In Kraków he canonised Queen Hedwig and during a meeting with representatives of the world of culture at the Jagiellonian University he spoke about the need for integrating faith and culture. The Pontiff noticed that the collapse of the Marxist ideology has not translated into a higher dignity of the human person; the erosion of this dignity has not been wiped out but has assumed more subtle and thus more dangerous forms.
The pilgrimage was the first to show the suffering Pope. As John Paul II observed in a shrine in Krzeptówki, “Suffering together with Christ is the most precious gift and the most useful assistance in apostleship”.
1999: a pilgrimage of the new millennium
John Paul II’s teaching during the 1999 apostolic journey focused on the eight Beatitudes and was to prepare the Church in Poland for the Jubilee of 2000 years of Christianity. The pope urged his compatriots to provide an especially intense witness during this time.
In Gdańsk the pope appealed that the inner renewal “should be fruitfully continued, contributing to a new spring of the spirit, commensurate with the era we are heading for”. In Warsaw, concluding the Plenary Synod, the pope called for a rebuilding of an ecclesial conscience, manifested in the sense of a shared responsibility for the Church, indispensable for new evangelisation.
John Paul II prayed in Piłsudski Square in Warsaw, reiterating his plea with the Holy Spirit from two decades before, which proved so efficient. The Holy Father visited Polish Parliament for the first time. He recalled that it should serve the collective rather than individual objectives. He highlighted the fact that democracy and the free market, despite the potential of good, are neither ideal nor self-sufficient and must be rooted in values. The pope reminded Polish parliamentarians that “Poland’s integration with the European Union has since the very beginning been supported by the Holy See” and indicated the potentially substantial contribution of the Polish nation.
In the village of Wigry, the pope visited the home of the Milewski family of farmers. In Wadowice, his hometown, he shared his personal memories of his youth and confided in his audiences the magnitude of impact of this period upon him. At the very last moment he had to cancel his participation in the Holy Mass in the Błonia meadow in Kraków; for the first time ever this Mass took place in his absence.
2002: a pilgrimage of Divine Mercy
The last, as it turned out, pilgrimage of John Paul II to Poland was dedicated to the Divine Mercy. At the very start of his stay, at the airport, the pope said that the prime objective of his visit was to proclaim the message of God’s merciful love, spread thanks to St. Faustina. John Paul II identified Poles’ weaknesses and concerns, such as poverty, lack of hope, unemployment, and disillusionment and said that Divine Mercy is the only hope in the face of them. “Stop being afraid!”, he called following Christ.
The pope dedicated the Divine Mercy Shrine in Łagiewniki. It was there that he indicated the magnitude of God’s mercy that the evil and unjust world needs. In the Błonia in Kraków he said: “The time has come for the message of the Divine Mercy to pour hope into the human hearts and to become the spark of a new civilisation, a civilisation of love”. He stressed that the twentieth century was marked by the “mystery of inequity”, still present in the world. He therefore entrusted the world to the Divine Mercy. He called on his compatriots to demonstrate an “imagination of mercy” and to be witnesses to it. Here Poles may follow the example of the new blesseds: Archbishop Zygmunt Feliński, Fr. Jan Beyzym, Sr. Sancja Szymkowiak, and Fr. Jan Balicki.
In Kalwaria Zebrzydowska the pope thanked for the 400 years of the shrine, very close to him since his boyhood. He asked there for the unity of faith, spirit and thought, families and the entire society. There, too, as in Kraków Cathedral before, he prayed a long time in silence.
John Paul II’s pilgrimage had an exceptionally large number of personal touches: he visited places which were important for him and remembered his past. He was most likely aware that this was his goodbye to his homeland. “It feels sad to go away”, he confessed at the end.
2006: a pilgrimage of faith
The only, as it turned out later, pilgrimage of Pope Benedict XVI to Poland was called by the pope himself a “journey of faith”, an aspect of the mission entrusted to him by God.
In Warsaw he said to the clergy: “The faithful expect of priests only one thing: to be specialists during their encounter with God”. He urged for a modest life and called on Christians of different denominations to cooperate for the sake of the needy.
In Piłsudski Square in Warsaw Benedict XVI warned against the relativism of faith. In Jasna Góra he indicated the Mother of God as a paragon of faith and prayer. He said that faith, a gift that allows the human person to meet God, is present first of all in thought and action. He observed that an attempt to comprehend God would mean that we try to confine Him within the human framework, which would result in losing Him.
During the pilgrimage, Pope Benedict XVI followed the trail of his predecessor. In Wadowice he thanked God for John Paul II’s pontificate. In Kalwaria Zebrzydowska he expressed a wish for his speedy beatification and canonisation. The young people gathered in Błonia in Kraków were urged by the Pontiff not to give in to disillusionment since “a strong faith needs to be tested”. During the Holy Mass he called on the Poles to provide the world with a testimony to their faith.
The pope met with the former inmates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. He prayed in the death cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He met with Carmelite nuns in the Centre of Dialogue and Prayer. When the pope was walking down the row of plaques commemorating the camp victims, a rainbow appeared in the sky. The pope called it his duty as a German to set foot in the camp. He warned against the use of violence in the name of God and His cynical rejection. He observed that faced with dramatic questions like: “Lord, why did you remain silent? Why did you allow this?”, we can only beg God: “Wake and do not forget the man You have created”.
Bidding farewell to Poland, Benedict XVI asked Poles to pray for him. He delivered parts of his speeches in Polish, which was highly appreciated by the congregations.