In Krakow, Poland, at the end of May, I found the Polish pope. In gardens and courtyards and beneath the flutter of bird wing. In Schindler’s Factory and the Jewish Quarter, in the placard photographs of Planty Park, in public maps, and on the welcome signs of Krakow’s international airport.
I found him in the peaceable quiet of the Paulist monastery, keeping watch over the tombs of writers and painters. I found him in the Bishop’s Palace and in Strzelecki Park. I found him in the shadow of the Bell Tower on Wawel Hill — that remarkable rise of Jurassic rock where kings, fire, foreigners and the Nazis all came and finally went — and in the standing-room-only hymns of Saturday and Sunday worshippers, in that brisk sense of purpose of monastery nuns, in the young priests carrying their necessary things in fashionable backpacks.
But perhaps it was within the Wawel Cathedral Museum that I most acutely felt the presence of St. John Paul II. There, in the Papal Room of that restored 14th-century building, where, one day, escaping the crowds, we climbed some steps and entered into a space of amber shadows. Beneath soft lights the folds of the pope’s white and red cassocks shone. Beneath another lamp stood the careful peaks of his biretta. The pope’s beaded shoes, the pope’s goblet, the pope’s zucchetto, the pope’s sash and the chair where the pope once sat — in the Papal Room, it all emerged as real and profoundly material. In its close proximity, I felt something true. The simple, elegant humanity of one who thought he might be a philosopher or poet and became instead a saint.
I am not a Catholic, though I married one. I am not naive about what can happen when faith is institutionalized or when power hides behind privilege. I discount neither fissures nor scars. But to go to Krakow and walk the legacy of John Paul is to discover the son of a Polish army captain who was committed to peace, a kayaker, hiker, skier and soccer player who spent untold hours in restful prayer, a contemplative writer who was also, during Nazi occupation, a defiant actor, a gentle soul who worked the quarries under German rule, a man of proud Polish heritage who, when called to serve beyond his own borders, did.
John Paul condemned anti-Semitism. He fought communism. He opposed both wars in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. He cared immensely about children. He apologized, on behalf of the Catholic Church, to Jews, Galileo, the victims of the African slave trade and those who suffered at the hands of the Inquisition. He befriended the young Turk who had tried to kill him. He traveled farther than any pope before him had, and even in the midst of all he had to do, all we’ll never know he did, he found time to honor the coming First Communion of my friend Karolina. When she was 8 years old, she lived on the outskirts of Krakow. Her uncle was a priest writing his doctoral thesis at the Vatican. When the pope learned from Karolina’s uncle about this little girl who shared the name he had been born to — Karol Jozef Wojtyla — he sent her a pearl rosary completed by a golden cross in a brown bag sealed by the Vatican’s logo — pearls so beautiful, Karolina says, that they change colors with the sun.
John Paul came to Philadelphia in 1979, as part of his 9,000-mile goodwill trip. He incensed an altar, said Mass, looked out upon the more than a million people who had come to share the moment, and glowed.
At the end of this September, as part of the World Meeting of Families, Philadelphia will host its second pope — another man of humble beginnings, another non-Italian pope, another soccer player (he is said to like the tango, too), another Catholic leader with that ineffable thing we call charisma.
Pope Francis will say his Mass on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to a crowd no one is pretending can be estimated. He will bring a message of peace to a modern era few of us can understand — to eruptions emerging from tensions we had hoped had passed, to violence directed at known goodness, to the arrogance of warfare and unrighteous ammunition. He will remind us to be mindful of unnecessary filth, of winnowing resources, of empty consumerism and whether or not you agree with the economics or politics of his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” it seems impossible not to agree with these words, Pope Francis’ words: “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.”
Dignity. Because that is what it is all coming down to, isn’t it? Our ability to rescue both the Earth and one another from blind impulse, selfish want, successive unkindness. Our ability to convert personal ambition into worldly good. From the people of Krakow may we learn that legacies certainly are built and polished. But they must also be carried forward.
Graciousness in the midst of a pope’s grace — but also graciousness and mutual respect and ecological sensitivity in the weeks and years after he leaves us. That is my prayer.