WADOWICE, Poland — Just four days before the official opening of World Youth Day, a scene unfolded in Wadowice, the hometown of St. Pope John Paul II located about an hour outside of Krakow, that almost perfectly captured the late pontiff’s vision for the event he himself founded in 1987.
On Thursday, in the main square outside the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help where the future pope was baptized in 1920, a small band from the Diocese of Willemstad in Curaçao hopped up onto a table placed in the center of the square, laying down a version of “Alleluia” to a funky reggae beat featuring drums and guitars.
A group of young French pilgrims got caught up in the sound, initially jumping up onto the table to join the band and then forming a dance circle around it. They were joined by nearby Poles, a young married couple from Belize, and two gyrating nuns in full habits from Botswana.
“We do this at home all the time,” one of the adults from Willemstad told me as we stood by and watched the scene unfold. “We just don’t usually get this many people from other places joining in.”
It was a high-octane display of the universal church, which was a core part of the intuition John Paul II had when he first started asking youth from around the world to gather on a regular basis.
From the beginning, Catholicism in principle has been a universal, global faith, addressed to “the nations” in every corner of the earth. In many ways, however, it was John Paul II who made the Church truly global in practice, first by being the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, second through his staggering commitment to foreign travel – 104 foreign trips covering three-quarters of a million miles, more than three times the distance from the earth to the moon – and third, through his foundation of World Youth Day.
Because of John Paul, Catholics tend to think in more global terms about their Church, realizing that the experiences and priorities of believers in, say, Chicago and London, are not always those of Catholics in Jakarta, or Mumbai, or Riyadh.
Anyone who watched John Paul II during the eight WYD celebrations over which he presided, including Argentina, Poland, the United States, the Philippines, Spain, France, Canada and Italy, was always struck by the delight he took in seeing young people waving the flags of their countries and projecting pride in their cultures.
Those instincts resonated with John Paul, because he took such fierce pride in his own Polish roots.
How much do his fellow Poles still return the favor? Consider that our driver on the way to Wadowice from Krakow is hardly any sort of hyper-pious type … when asked what he thinks of the prospect of as many as two million young people descending on the area, he described it sardonically as a “horror.”
Yet in casual conversation, he mentioned that “John Paul” is coming next week, using the term as a brand name for a pope, like one might say “I need a Kleenex” or “can I get a Xerox?” For him, “John Paul” and “pope” are co-extensive terms, meaning basically the same thing.
Despite his ferocious, ineradicable Polishness, Karol Wojtyla had a special kind of Polish formation. He grew up under a father who had been a non-commissioned officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and in the shadow of a great city, Krakow, fiercely proud of its reputation as one of the crown jewels of the Hapsburg empire.
Famously, the Hapsburgs presided over a patchwork empire featuring parts of Europe such as the Balkans where ethnicity and nationality were forever sources of conflict, and attempted to solve the problem by seeing national pride and loyalty not as a threat of imperial cohesion but one of its sources – the idea being that someone who identified with his own nation could respect it in others, and perhaps that mutual recognition would allow for peace.
The imprint of Habsburg culture thus tended to foster a broadly tolerant, open and cosmopolitan stamp on the peoples it touched – especially, as it turns out, members of the officer corps of the army, who were seen in many ways as the bulwark and last line of defense of the empire.
That was the world out of which the young Karol Wojtyla emerged, believing that fierce devotion to the nation and being part of a much broader, universal project were not only not at odds, but intimately related. He brought the same spirit to the papacy, meaning that in one sense it’s to see John Paul II as the final, and greatest, flowering of that Habsburg spirit.
Wadowice is a lovely small town of about 20,000 people, where the house in which John Paul II was born in 1920 and where he lived until 1938 is now a terrific little museum, featuring exhibits on the different stages of his life and his papacy. Among other things, the top floor contains samples of dirt under a glass floor from a cross-section of the different countries John Paul visited, representing every continent.
Right now there’s a massive, billboard-esque sign on one of the buildings facing the main square that reads, “Where it all began …”
Of course, it’s a promo for the July 25-31 World Youth Day — which is fair enough, because it was John Paul’s experience as a youth himself in this small town near Krakow and the much bigger world it represented that laid the foundations for WYD.
However, what really began here was far more than that. It was a view of the world, of culture and of the church that laid the basis for a truly vibrant global Catholicism – which, of course, makes the fact that the “John Paul” coming to Krakow next week is also the first-ever pontiff from Latin America, just about perfect.