KRAKOW, Poland — Among the first things you noticed roaming around Krakow is all the images of Pope John Paul II. They are part of the city’s background any day, but during Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day, they went up seemingly everywhere.
It’s a different kind of display – normally when Pope Francis is about to land somewhere, his face is everywhere, from banners to cheap souvenirs.
Almost as soon as he touched down on Polish soil, it all made sense to anyone who thought the sight might be some kind of downplaying of, or commentary on, the current pontiff.
Speaking in the courtyard of the historic Wawel Castle, Francis talked about memory: “I was always impressed by Pope John Paul’s vivid sense of history. Whenever he spoke about a people, he started from its history, in order to bring out its wealth of humanity and spirituality.”
He went on to say:
“A consciousness of one’s own identity, free of any pretensions to superiority, is indispensable for establishing a national community on the foundation of its human, social, political, economic and religious heritage, and thus inspiring social life and culture in a spirit of constant fidelity to tradition and, at the same time, openness to renewal and the future.”
The ghosts of this city seem as alive as ever, making the memories that shape a cultural identity near-impossible to escape. And for the pilgrims here for World Youth Day, this close encounter may be just exactly what we need.
Back home, we’re missing a sense of memory and what real identity is. It’s not submission to ideology or labels or desires or mistakes or missteps or even, frankly, achievements of your past or present.
That’s what a lot of this week at the largest venue in Krakow, a home for English speaking pilgrims the Mercy Center at Tauron Arena hosted by the Knights of Columbus, was all about.
After an intensive day immersed in the themes of freedom and mercy, a group called Cenacolo put flesh and blood to the words and the prayers and the supernatural experiences of the day. Their Credo is not a performance, but a prayer, a testimony, and a miracle.
Cenacolo is a Catholic community of prayer and work. Most of the men and women involved have lived in deep darkness, lifted up through the instrument of the community and its life, focused on the Gospel.
Paul Szopa, who was born in Poland but now lives in Italy, explains that Credo “is really a lot more than a play about a gospel. It’s a way of testifying ourselves how we met the Lord. It’s all about the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, but it is about our own personal resurrection.”
“Most of or all of the men and women who are part of the community, have come through the darkness, have gone through death, have gone through loss, have gone through being close, have gone through losing their selves and their lives, and have found in the community their lives. So this is also about our own personal resurrection,” he said.
“We always say before we perform this play that it’s not a play really,” he said. “It’s all true. It’s all true. ‘I believe’ it’s called, and this is really what it is: We believe in Jesus Christ because we have experienced him in the community. And we have found out that we can only live in the light and we can only live well together when we live with Jesus, when we experience Him, when we are close to Him in the Eucharist and in our personal prayer.”
And so to witness a performance from the Cenacolo community is to witness a miracle. It’s an intense immersion in the struggle and flourishing of freedom, which lifts up lives, and shows the possibilities of using it wisely, in ways that are only life giving and uplifting.
About his own experience, Szopa shares that his parents brought him to Cenacolo. At the time he was convinced that “there was no hope for me personally at this moment.”
When he was faced with a possibility of something besides his darkness, “I immediately said yes, thinking, if there is a place where I can find somebody who’s done the same experiences in life and can help me and tell me how to change, how to have a better life, I would try.”
After what had already been an intensely grim Friday, on which Pope Francis visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, the pontiff emphasized the only believable answer to the question of “Where is God?” He is in each of those who suffer. He said:
“Jesus’ answer is this: ‘God is in them.’ Jesus is in them; He suffers in them and deeply identifies with each of them. He is so closely united to them as to form with them, as it were, ‘one body’.”
At the Way of the Cross in Jordan Park in Blonia later in the day and in speaking to youth from the window of the Archbishop’s residence where Pope John Paul II, as cardinal archbishop here used to do the same, Pope Francis talked about the suffering that continues in the world today.
He asked those gathered to pray for the suffering and to serve in the love of the Lord.
The pope travels not because he thinks he is some international rock star on tour, but because he wants to see people focus their lives on Christ. Therein is our life. Therein is our credibility. Therein is the solution to the problems that plague the world.
Speaking at the John Paul II sanctuary in Krakow, Pope Francis advised Saturday morning: “We would do well each day … to say to the Lord: You are my one treasure, the path I must follow, the core of my life, my all.”
Such prayers and a commitment to the Gospel, with focus on the Eucharist and the Beatitudes, could just make the miracles of mercy real for people of no and all faiths.