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City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II's Kraków by [George Weigel, Carrie Gress, Stephen Weigel]
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About the Author

GEORGE WEIGEL, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Catholic Church. Senior Vatican Analyst for NBC News and a nationally syndicated columnist, Weigel is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestseller Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

--This text refers to the paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


St. John Paul II and the City Where the

Twentieth Century Happened

When eighteen-­year-­old Karol Józef Wojtyła, newly arrived in Kraków from provincial Wadowice, walked across the Dębniki Bridge and into Krakow’s Old Town in the fall of 1938 to register for his first classes in Polish language and literature at the Jagiellonian University, he may already have felt a sense of kinship with the ancient city that had been Poland’s cultural capital for centuries. He had read deeply in his country’s poetry, its plays, and its novels; he was a patriot who had begun to grasp the unique role that Poland’s culture had played in its singular history; he was a committed Catholic in a city that had given the Church several saints. In moving to Kraków with his widower father, he was, in a sense, moving home.

Still, neither he, his father, those who would be his teachers, nor the men and women who would become his friends imagined that this twenty-­minute walk past the site of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław and the great hill of Wawel, with its royal castle and cathedral, was in fact the first moment in a lifelong pilgrimage during which Karol Wojtyła, as Pope John Paul II, would bring a Cracovian sensibility to the world—­and in doing so would bend the curve of history in a more humane direction while leaving an indelible impression on the life and thought of the Catholic Church.

To follow Karol Wojtyła through Kraków is to follow an itinerary of sanctity while learning the story of a city. Thus, in what follows, the story of Karol Wojtyła, St. John Paul II, and the story of Kraków are interwoven in a chronological pilgrimage through the life of a saint that reveals, at the same time, the richly textured life of a city where a boy grew into a man, a priest, a bishop—­and an apostle to the world.


Kraków’s Rynek Głowny, the Main Market Square at the heart of the Old City, is the greatest public space in Europe, rivaled only by the Piazza San Marco in Venice for size, architectural achievement, and decorative splendor. To walk through this magnificent example of urban development is to traverse one of the principal crossroads of Europe, in the very heart of Europe. For Poles have never thought of themselves as a part of “eastern Europe”; Poland is in central Europe, and the center of Poland, its history and culture, is Kraków.

From the late fourteenth century to the early seventeenth, during more than two hundred years of growth initiated by the marriage of the young Polish queen Jadwiga to the Lithuanian grand duke Władysław Jagiełło, the Polish-­Lithuanian Commonwealth, with its capital in Kraków, was one of the great powers of Europe. Second only to France in size, it eventually governed a vast expanse of territory reaching from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south, and from the German Lander immediately to the west to the hinterlands of Moscow in the east. Leaving Kraków’s Royal Castle as the Ottoman Turks closed in on Vienna in 1683, King Jan III Sobieski and the famed Polish heavy cavalry, the Winged Hussars, decisively defeated the last great armed Islamic invasion of Europe. Something of Sobieski’s temper, and Poland’s, and Kraków’s, can be gleaned from the message—­a striking variant on Julius Caesar’s—­sent by the victorious Polish monarch to Pope Innocent XI (along with the green banner of Muhammad, captured from the Ottoman grand vizier): Veni, vidi, Deus vincit (I came, I saw, God conquered).

Kraków was far more than the chief city of a great political-­military power, however. For the old Polish royal capital was, and is, located on the border between Europe’s two wings, the Latin west and the Byzantine east. That location is reflected in the city’s striking combination of architectural styles, in which the visitor frequently finds elaborate baroque decoration inside churches crowned with onion domes reminiscent of classic Orthodox church architecture.

Here, in addition to the Latin that was the common tongue of educated people, the local citizens spoke a Slavic language written in the Latin alphabet: another sign that Kraków and Poland were a bridge across traditional cultural divides. Here, during the European wars of religion, a tradition of civility, tolerance, and respect for the rights of conscience was the accepted public norm. There were no religious persecutions in Reformation-­era Kraków, no coerced conversions, no burning of heretics. In 1583, Poland’s political leaders made a declaration of tolerance, the likes of which could be found nowhere else in Europe: “We who differ in matters of religion will keep the peace among ourselves, and neither shed blood on account of differences of Faith, or kinds of church, nor punish one another by confiscation of goods, deprivation of honor, imprisonment, or exile.” Poles and Cracovians were not angels, and intolerance certainly warped individual lives. But the public norm was tolerance; it was embodied in the famous declaration of King Zygmunt II August to the Polish parliament, the Sejm, that “I am not the king of your consciences”; and, as historian Norman Davies once put it, Poland was “a land without bonfires,” while much of the rest of Europe self-­destructed in the Thirty Years War.

At the height of the Polish-­Lithuanian Commonwealth, Kraków was also a major commercial and intellectual metropolis. In the Rynek Głowny, one could hear a multitude of tongues spoken, buy and sell products from across Europe, plan commercial expeditions to far lands and distant shores. Kraków’s economic vitality and the generosity of wealthy Poles helped support one of Europe’s greatest centers of scholarship in the middle of the second millennium—­a tradition of learning dating back to the Middle Ages, when intellectually adventurous students from this part of the world traveled the long road to Paris to study under Thomas Aquinas. The Jagiellonian University, which was once sustained by the philanthropy of Queen Jadwiga, grew out of the Kraków Academy of Theology, and gave Kraków, Poland, the Catholic Church, and the world both saints and men of genius: Jan Kanty, a late medieval biblical scholar canonized in 1767; Mikołaj Kopernik (Copernicus), who changed the world’s view of the world’s place in the universe; and Paweł Włodkovic, who at the Council of Constance in 1414 inveighed against the Teutonic Knights and their practice of conversion by conquest.

Located above the Vistula River on a rocky promontory at the southern edge of today’s Old City, standing watch over Kraków, is Wawel Hill, the “Polish Zion.” Wawel’s Royal Castle and Cathedral, a complex of structures woven together over centuries, draws one’s gaze upward, evoking the great aspirations that made, and make, Kraków unique. The city ceased to be Poland’s political capital in 1596, when King Zyg­munt III moved the seat of government to Warsaw. Yet for almost half a millennium, Kraków, no longer a center of political power, has remained the cultural and spiritual capital of Poland. Today, the Polish Zion looks over a thriving city at the very center of Europe.

A City Under Pressure

When Poland, the state, was erased from the map of Europe by the Third Polish Partition of 1795—­a vivisection conducted by the neighboring great powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria—­Kraków remained one of the great centers of Polish national consciousness. And for a century and a quarter, the years Poles refer to as their national “time on the cross,” Kraków’s literary, intellectual, and religious life all helped keep alive the idea of “Poland” while the partitioning great powers sought to eliminate that very notion. Tales of past Polish glories were recited or sung, dreams of Polish independence were dreamt, and rebellions were planned in the city’s cafes and noble houses. Memories of Poland’s greatness were kept alive in the royal crypts of Wawel Cathedral, where generations of Poles under foreign rule could ponder the achievements of Jadwiga and Władysław Jagiełło, Kazimierz the Great and Jan Sobieski. An aesthetic movement, Young Poland, led by men of accomplishment in many artistic fields such as playwright, poet, and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, was centered in Kraków and breathed new life into Polish literature and visual arts. And while the writers, composers, and artists of Young Poland were crafting their distinctive responses to the failure of the Polish rebellion of 1863 to reestablish national independence, so did two men whom the Catholic Church would later recognize as saints: rebels who, having risked their futures in 1863, staked the balance of their lives on a revolution of the spirit in intense forms of consecrated religious life—­Rafał Kalinowski and Albert Chmielowski.

These heroic efforts to keep Poland, the nation, alive during the 123 years that Poland, the state, could not be found on a map seemed vindicated in 1918, when, like a phoenix, the Second Polish Republic arose from the ashes of a Europe that had come to the brink of self-­destruction in the Great War, World War I. Politically, the collapse of the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties in St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Berlin created the conditions for the possibility of Poland recovering its independence. And yes, Poland’s new independence was secured in 1920 by the “Miracle on the Vistula,” when the forces of Marshal Józef Piłsudski defeated Trotsky’s Red Army outside Warsaw and drove it back into Russia. But there would have been no new Polish state to save had Polish culture succumbed to the country’s tripartite division and its political extinction. And if the beating heart of Polish culture was to be found in Kraków between 1795 and 1918, then Poland’s rebirth in the aftermath of the Great War was made possible, in no small measure, by Kraków.

For a brief period, between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler and his Nazis, it seemed that Kraków might return to a calmer life as one of the centers of European culture and learning. But it was not to be.

Unlike most other Polish cities during World War II, Kraków was spared obliteration by the German blitzkrieg and the Nazi penchant for gratuitous destruction. The Wehrmacht got to Kraków too quickly in September 1939 for the city to become a battleground; as the “capital” of the Nazi slave-­state, the General Gouvernement, from September 1939 until January 1945, the city’s fabric was largely spared; and as the Red Army approached in January 1945, the Germans left too quickly to do too much revenge bombing of historic sites and buildings. But Kraków suffered. And its suffering was beyond the imagining of most westerners.

Schindler’s List gave western audiences some sense of what life in occupied Kraków, its ghetto, and KL-­Płaszów, the local concentration camp, was like. The city of saints and scholars, poets, painters, and dramatists, patriots and tolerant kings was now run by gangsters like Hans Frank, the governor-­general of the General Gouvernement, and Amon Göth, the psychopathic commandant at KL-­Płaszów, located across the Vistula from Kraków’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz. These two men, both of whom were executed for war crimes in 1946, embodied Nazi racial contempt for the Poles as Slavic Untermenschen, lower life-­forms who were to be fed a minimal diet and, over time, worked into extinction, all for the greater glory of the Third Reich.

Frank presided over a vast territory of lawlessness aptly dubbed “Gestapoland” by Norman Davies: in the General Gouvernement, there was no rule of law in the ordinary sense of the term, and as a survivor of those draconian five years once put it, “It was not a question of knowing whether you would be alive next Christmas or on your next birthday; it was a question of not knowing whether you would be alive tomorrow morning.” Göth, whose theft of Jewish property aroused the ire of the German SS (not for the robbery, but because all such stolen goods belonged to the Third Reich), tortured and murdered prisoners for his amusement.

Even the graphic images of life in occupied Kraków conveyed by Steven Spielberg’s film do not convey the full horror of the occupation, which reflected the Nazi contempt for the spiritual and cultural traditions that had made Kraków such a unique place. For, according to the demonic ideology of the Third Reich, the Poles were not just to be ground into the dust physically. Their culture and its religious roots were to be spat upon, trampled down, exterminated. Thus on a fateful, and ultimately fatal, November morning in 1939, more than a hundred professors of the Jagiellonian University were summoned to what was announced as a faculty meeting with German officers in the Aula of the university’s Collegium Novum. The professors were arrested en masse and transported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where many of them died despite widespread international protests at their deportation. The university was shut down, as part of the Nazi effort to decapitate Polish culture; and although the Jagiellonian quickly reconstituted itself as an underground institution, higher learning in Kraków was, formally speaking, over: Untermenschen had no need of higher education.

The occupation sought to destroy Kraków’s centuries-­old and rich Jewish culture, as well as Kraków’s Jews, as quickly as possible. The Nazis also had no concern for the long-­term survival of the Catholic Church; it was to be tolerated, in a manner of speaking, so long it confined its activities to worship inside its many churches; ultimately, Catholicism would collapse as the Polish people were eliminated. For the short term, however, the vibrant Catholic educational and cultural life that had long characterized Kraków was put under the Nazi ban. Catholic charitable and educational work was forbidden; the Catholic press was shut down; organizing Catholic youth groups was a capital offense. Thus in one example of persecution, the Germans routed out the Salesian priests at the Church of St. Stanisław Kostka in the working-­class neighborhood of Dębniki in May 1941, sending all but one to the Dachau concentration camp, where the Salesians lived in the “priests’ barracks” (sometimes described as the world’s largest monastery) until they died from exhaustion and illness or were executed.

One-­fifth of the prewar population of Poland in September 1939 was dead by the Second World War’s end, victims of combat, malnutrition, disease, random murder—­and the extermination camps, the greatest of which, Auschwitz-­Birkenau, pioneered industrialized mass murder thirty-­five miles to the west of Kraków, inside that part of the Second Polish Republic that had been absorbed into the German Reich. But any hope that Kraków, and Poland, would be restored to freedom by the defeat of German National Socialism was dashed by the British and American agreement, at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, to give Stalin and the Soviet Union effective control over postwar Poland. World War II, Poles came to say, was “the war we lost twice.” --This text refers to the paperback edition.

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