Pope John Paul II unites a di­vided Poland

The Columbus Dispatch - - Morningstarters - By Marc San­tora

But each fac­tion claims late pon­tiff’s legacy

WADOWICE, Poland — On his knees, head bowed be­fore blood­stained robes, a Pol­ish man was deep in prayer.

He was wor­ship­ping in a chapel at the John Paul II Cen­ter in Krakow, a sprawl­ing com­plex where relics of the for­mer pon­tiff are dis­played, in­clud­ing the clothes he was wear­ing when nearly killed by an as­sas­sin’s bul­let in 1981.

An en­gi­neer, the man said he pre­ferred to keep his pray­ers pri­vate and asked that only his first name, Wo­j­ciech, be used. But he was ex­cited to talk about his beloved pope.

“When­ever I have a prob­lem in my life, I come here to pray,” Wo­j­ciech said.

In a na­tion in­creas­ingly di­vided, one fig­ure can still in­spire sol­i­dar­ity among Poles: The man born Karol Jozef Wo­jtyla, who, in 1978, be­came John Paul II, the first non-ital­ian pon­tiff in 455 years.

The na­tion’s fa­vorite son, he still looms large in Pol­ish life more than 40 years af­ter he was named bishop of Rome.

From a tow­er­ing 45-foot­tall statue de­pict­ing the pope with out­stretched hands that over­looks the city of Czesto­chowa, to the relics dis­trib­uted to churches through­out the coun­try — in­clud­ing drops of his blood in more than 100 parishes — Poland is awash in tributes to the man com­monly re­ferred to as “Our Pope.”

But at a mo­ment when the coun­try finds it­self torn by po­lit­i­cal con­flicts that are cast by all sides as an ex­is­ten­tial bat­tle for the na­tion’s soul, the legacy of John Paul II — a cham­pion for both Poland and an in­te­grated Europe — is the sub­ject of dis­pute.

“For ev­ery­one, he re­mains a pos­i­tive point of ref­er­ence,” said Michal Luczewski, pro­gram di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter on the Thought of John Paul II in War­saw. “But there is a strug­gle over his legacy, with each side want­ing to claim him as their own.”

For those on the po­lit­i­cal right, the pope is an in­spi­ra­tion in their bat­tle against an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar Europe, Luczewski said.

Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers, in­clud­ing many sup­port­ers of the gov­ern­ing Law and Jus­tice party, be­lieve they are car­ry­ing on the pope’s mis­sion, par­tic­u­larly the fight against abor­tion, an is­sue that con­tin­ues to be deeply di­vi­sive in this coun­try that has the most re­stric­tive re­pro­duc­tive laws in Europe.

On the other side, Poles who be­lieve the Law and Jus­tice party is do­ing great da­m­age to the na­tion’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions — in­clud­ing un­der­min­ing the ju­di­ciary sys­tem and con­trol­ling the state news me­dia — find force­ful re­bukes to the creep­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in the life and teach­ings of John Paul II.

“The new­est mem­bers of the demo­cratic fam­ily, John Paul II hoped, ought to be a re­minder to the older mem­bers of the fam­ily that free­dom and truth, free­dom and virtue, can­not be sep­a­rated with­out do­ing se­ri­ous da­m­age to the demo­cratic project,” Ge­orge Weigel, au­thor of “Wit­ness to Hope,” a bi­og­ra­phy of John Paul II, said in a re­cent speech in War­saw.

“I can­not imag­ine that John Paul II would be en­tirely happy with the con­di­tion of the world’s democ­ra­cies, both old and new, to­day,” Weigel added.

In the Poland of 2019, even the pope’s child­hood can have a con­tested mean­ing: While it was suf­fused in Pol­ish pa­tri­o­tism, it oc­curred in a place of plu­ral­ism.

[MACIEK NABRDALIK/THE NEW YORK TIMES]

A man prays at a chapel in Krakow, Poland, in front of the blood­stained robes worn by Pope John Paul II when an as­sas­sin nearly killed him in 1981.

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