Poland, a nation that wars had once wiped off the map of Eastern Europe, is now highlighted on that map in the minds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike because one of its native sons became one of the longest reigning and most charismatic popes in history.
It was inevitable that the pope who came from behind the Iron Curtain, and who played an indispensable role in the fall of that Curtain, would put Poland in a global spotlight.
Even before John Paul II’s canonization, various sites in his homeland had become places of pilgrimage. Now that he is officially recognized as a saint, these sites have taken on a particular spiritual significance.
Here’s a look at eight of the places I’ll take pilgrims on a once-in-a-lifetime experience this Aug. 20-29.
1. John Paul II’s family home in Wadowice
We all have a hunger to return to the “beginning” of things, to the origins of the people, events, and realities that have shaped our lives. Visiting the small home (now museum) where Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II’s given name – lived as a child, standing there in the very room where he was born, provides an overwhelming sense of history’s small beginnings.
2. The baptismal font at St. Mary’s Church
Directly across the street from the place of John Paul II’s birth is St. Mary’s Church, and the baptismal font that was the place of his new birth. The grace of that one baptism in 1920 dramatically changed the history of the modern world.
3. The Black Madonna at Jasna Gora Monastery
The famous image of the “Black Madonna” in Częstochowa was so important to John Paul II that, after surviving the assassination attempt, he had his bloodstained papal sash hung next to the image in gratitude for Mary’s intercession in saving his life. Seeing this astonishing relic next to the Black Madonna was one of the highlights of my first trip to Poland.
4. Auschwitz concentration camp
This place of unspeakable human tragedy is not easy to visit. But following in the footsteps of Saint John Paul II, we will journey to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to pray and to remember. The cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was martyred there on Aug. 14, 1941, is a beacon of light in this dark place and a witness to the triumph of love over evil, hatred, and violence.
5. Private chapel at the Archbishop’s Palace in Krakow
On my first trip to Poland, upon entering the private chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest, I was flabbergasted when my guide pointed to a small chair and table close to the tabernacle and casually remarked, “That’s where John Paul wrote his Theology of the Body.” “Ahem. Excuse me? Are you kidding!?” This is the teaching that changed and shaped my life, the teaching to which I’ve devoted my career as an author, teacher, and theologian. Sitting in that very chair and kissing the table was a moment I’ll never forget.
6. The home of Jan Tyranowski in Krakow
Jan Tyranowski, a lay mystic, held clandestine gatherings in his house teaching young Catholics about the journey of the interior life. A future pope was among those whom Tyranowski instructed in the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross, a gift that would influence the rest of Karol Wojtyla’s life, including his papacy.
7. The Tatra Mountains
Karol Wojtyla was an avid outdoorsman and would often escape to his beloved Tatra Mountains alone or with young people to encounter God in his creation. The beauty of creation, indeed, it’s “sacramental” character as a revelation of the Creator, was a constant theme of his teaching and writings. The Tatra Mountains offer an elaborate canvas on which to discern the brush strokes of God.
8. The Shrine of Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki
John Paul II canonized St. Faustina as the first saint of the new millennium. He established the first Sunday after Easter as the Feast of the Divine Mercy and died on the vigil of that feast. Indeed, his entire life and death was a testimony to the message of mercy received by Faustina, his fellow Polish saint. The Latin for mercy is misericordia, which means “a heart which gives itself to those in misery.” Poland, the “martyr of nations” as it’s been called, has known its share of misery. Through St. Faustina, St. John Paul II, and the Shrine of Divine Mercy, it’s also become a witness to the world that God gives his heart to those in misery.
Christopher West will lead a Footsteps of St. John Paul II pilgrimage to Poland Aug. 20-29. Details can be found here, or one can register by calling 800-842-4842. Christopher West is known throughout the world for his work popularizing the theology of St. John Paul II. He is founder and president of The Cor Project.