Poles debate John Paul II's significance in his homeland

By ENInews
April 30, 2011

When the late Pope John Paul II is declared "blessed" in Rome on 1 May 2011, it will be a moment of joy and satisfaction for Roman Catholics in his Polish homeland - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.

Since the pontiff's death on 2 April 2005, the Polish church has prayed and lobbied for his beatification, the final step to full sainthood.

In a recent pastoral letter, its leaders reminded Catholics that John Paul II's prayer for the renewal of Poland after his 1978 election had inspired the creation of a world "liberated from totalitarian handcuffs and a godless system."

However, they also deplored current political infighting and social rifts in Poland, and said the ceremony should summon Poles to "examine their consciences," and gain courage "to give up egoistic attitudes and behaviour."

"This beatification opens up new perspectives for our future, above all by requiring an ever more attentive and creative reading of the legacy embodied in his words, personality, lifestyle and service," the Bishops Conference said.

"We also voice concern at the quality and style of political life in our country, and at the worsening divisions between people of various parties ... This wasn't the kind of freedom and democracy we dreamed of in the dark years of communism."

Born at Wadowice on 18 May 1920, the then-Karol Wojtyla was a Roman Catholic priest of 28 when communist rule was imposed in Poland, where he later served as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal in Krakow.

At least 80,000 Poles, including state and government leaders, are expected to attend his May Day beatification in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI and preparations have been given blanket coverage in Poland since it was announced last January.

The first of several new "churches of the Blessed John Paul II", who is widely credited with a key role in the 1989-91 collapse of communist rule in Europe and the continent's subsequent East-West reunification, is to be dedicated on 1 May at Radzymin. In addition, the world's largest portrait of the pope, created from half a million photographs, is to be unveiled at a new 200 million-zloty (US$75 million) basilica in his honour in Warsaw's Wilanow suburb.

Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a Catholic presenter with state-owned Polish Radio, which has run daily programmes about John Paul II, said the beatification would remind the people who personally knew John Paul II that saintliness was "still achievable in the modern world."

However, she added the event also will confirm the late pontiff's "pivotal significance" in Polish history. "For a younger generation who didn't experience his role so closely, the beatification will underline the pope's national stature," Glabisz-Pniewska told ENInews on 28 April.

Besides holding honorary citizenship of dozens of Polish towns and cities, John Paul II's name is on 750 schools nationwide and a similar number of city and squares. An annual John Paul II Day on the 16 October anniversary of his election is marked by services, concerts and exhibitions, while a hundred statues and monuments are estimated to have been unveiled each year since 2005.

In a survey before the pontiff's death by Warsaw's Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), 58 per cent of Polish respondents cited his election as the twentieth century's "most important event," while three-quarters said he had wielded greater "influence on the world's fate" than any other modern-day figure.

Speaking on 21 April in Gniezno, Poland's oldest Christian see, the Roman Catholic primate, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, warned church members not to treat the late pontiff "as a mythological person walking in the clouds," and said John Paul II would have viewed the creation of "monuments of stone and bronze" to him "with great reserve."

"The Holy Father was a normal person who walked the earth," Archbishop Kowalczyk told journalists. "Instead of statues, which are easy to erect, we need concrete expressions of faith and actions inspired by John Paul II's teaching."

However, Glabisz-Pniewska said monuments serve as permanent expressions of "spiritual mobilisation and gratitude."

Meanwhile, some Poles are criticising what they see as the adulation of John Paul II. In a series of articles, the mass-circulation Gazeta Wyborcza accused the Polish church of ignoring or downplaying key aspects of John Paul II's teaching, including the rights of women and concern for the poor.

"John Paul II was more open to differences, including criticism of his teaching, than the 'papalists'," the newspaper commented on 26 April. "Paradoxically, the dedication bordering on adoration, which he himself often ridiculed, has impeded our understanding of the pope, since all critical reflection has been treated as an affront to the head of the church."

[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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