Dr. David Fagerberg of Notre Dame has taken a personal vow to quote G.K. Chesterton to someone once a week. I would not be surprised if some here at Word on Fire believe that I have made an equivalent vow about discussing Poland because I inevitably bring up that lovely land nearly every day. It must drive my colleagues nuts, but I cannot help myself. Who does not want to tell everyone about things they love? And one thing I love is Poland.
Like many other nations with strong Catholic roots, Poles make visibly present their love for Christ and his Church. They have had to struggle and fight to be able to do so throughout their dramatic history. I greatly admire them for this, and I hope to do likewise.
As the saying goes, I am not Polish by ancestry but by marriage, and my wife is Poland’s best spokeswoman. She helps me better understand and appreciate her nation’s history, culture, and (rather difficult) language, which are key to better understanding one Pole we admire and hope to emulate: Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła).
Wojtyła grew up in a land marked by the Faith, on display throughout its cities and landscapes. It was within this context that Wojtyła became a man of faith. This is something to keep in mind when discussing the New Evangelization, which sometimes can get too muddled in argumentative abstractions or too comfortable in echo chambers.
My wife and I met at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, where Dr. Stanisław Grygiel delivered a series of lectures on Plato and Dante. His lecture on Plato’s Symposium inspired me, a lover of the Platonic dialogues, to approach him about Diotima’s speech on the “ladder of love.” My wife was the only other student who went up to him as well. The next year, my wife and I were married in Poland, and most of our travels since have been following in the footsteps of John Paul II throughout Poland, a land marked by his presence.
Right after our wedding, my wife and I made our way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa to dedicate our marriage to the Virgin Mary, followed by a trip to Kraków to see what George Wiegel calls the “City of Saints,” which our beloved St. John Paul II used to call home.
Kraków helped me better appreciate this poetic pope. There’s something mystical about the city and its surroundings. If I had to render it artistically, I would paint in Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro style, playing with the dramatic contrast of light and dark, or I would write a poem in the Polish Romantic style about a city and nation that has become a witness to hope. Each trip has been a lesson in hope evolving into a pilgrimage of sorts, full of meaning and spiritual nourishment and helping me appreciate how the suffering of the people, under the cross, has borne fruit for the New Evangelization around the world.
My wife and I have stayed in touch with Dr. Grygiel, a romantic poet in his own right, once meeting him in Old Town Kraków’s main square over coffee. Our conversation was delightful, ranging from Plato to the Church, and, inevitably, we discussed John Paul II. He told us about his long walks with the former archbishop of Kraków and their rich discussions about Polish poetry and history. You can read more about his life-changing conversations with the pope in his book Discovering the Human Person: In Conversation with John Paul II. Here was a man who learned from John Paul II how to see God’s poetry and holiness in everything. It was fitting that as we talked, right next to us was a statue of Poland’s greatest Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, so cherished and beloved by the Romantic pope. And down the street in the Wawel Cathedral was his tomb alongside other Romantic Polish poets, such as Juliusz Słowaski and Cyprian Kamil Norwid.
Dr. Grygiel said that the key to understanding John Paul II is to understand Polish culture, language, and history, all of which are linked to the Faith. Obviously, divine grace molded the pope into the saint he would become, but that grace was humanly received by Wojtyła within the Church entwined in the matrix of the people and their land.
During our last visit to Poland, my wife and I went from Kraków and the Wielczka Salt Mines, with its rock-salt chapel, to the peaks of the Tatry Mountains, which is topped with a summit cross that hovers over the city of Zakopane and the Polish landscape. Despite the pressure of the Communists to privatize the Faith or simply keep it hidden, the Polish people–especially the proudly Catholic mountain Gorale people–knew that for their faith to have any meaning, it has to be visibly present and Poland needs to be placed under the Sign of the Cross.
Even Poland’s major cities have the Faith front and center. It’s not unusual to come upon a wayside shrine on a small street in the Old Town of Kraków. During my morning stroll through the city, I came upon a huge crucifix on the side of a small street with a kneeler placed right in front of it. I could not help but stop and offer up a prayer. I bet I was not the only one to do so that day.
Such signs are sacramentals that enliven life in Christ. The Church, wherever she is, brings the whole material world into Christ and visibly presents his salvation to the world. Christian proclamation of the Gospel is a public event.
Not many people know this, but the struggle to visibly present the Faith in the Sign of the Cross was the context about which John Paul II first spoke of the New Evangelization. In 1979, on his first papal visit to Poland, John Paul II delivered a homily under the cross of the Cistercian Abbey at Mogiła, near Kraków by Nowa Huta, which was one of the first socialist realist cities ever built. It was there that the Polish people had to persistently fight with the communist authorities to put up a cross. Some of the faithful died in the struggle. In this homily, John Paul II preached:
The history of Nowa Huta is also written by means of the Cross. . . . Where the Cross is raised, there is raised the sign that that place has now been reached by the Good News of Man’s salvation through Love. Where the cross is raised, there is the sign that evangelization has begun. Once our fathers raised the Cross in various places in the land of Poland as a sign that the Gospel had arrived there, that there has been a beginning of the evangelization that was to continue without break until today.
As I write this, I have recently returned from yet another visit to Poland, but I am now looking out upon a horizon of concrete. Here in the United States, wayside shrines and summit crosses are rare, and their continued existence is often challenged in courts. I can’t help thinking that if the landscape shaped John Paul II into the witness to hope that he became, what sort of formation is received by people who are shaped by landscapes void of the signs of faith? Perhaps, as John Paul II suggests, the New Evangelization should begin by marking the land with the Sign of the Cross.
Or how about simply in the home or in the garden? Do you have a cross or crucifix displayed where you and your visitors can easily see it? An icon of Our Lady on prominent display? We must put up our own signs of the Faith, not simply admire the signs put up by generations past.
Such public signs of faith are still being set up around Poland. They are a people who have had to struggle for the public display of their faith, thus they don’t take their holy displays and summits for granted. Faith is expressed in the midst of the struggle.