My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Having just returned from World Youth Day with Pope Francis in Kraków, Poland, I am pleased to offer some reflections on this experience that I shared with 63 pilgrims from our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and with countless more from all over the world.
At the outset, I refer to this as an experience of “pilgrims” on a “pilgrimage.” A pilgrimage is distinguished from a vacation or a simple sightseeing trip in that a pilgrimage involves a prayerful journey to one or more holy shrines for religious purposes. Kraków was certainly a marvelous venue for World Youth Day 2016 since it is indeed a city of saints, with numerous shrines, sanctuaries, churches, chapels and basilicas dedicated to a variety of holy men and women who have officially been canonized as saints over the centuries.
Christianity began in the year 966 with the baptism of Prince Mieszko, considered to be the founder of the Polish state. A cynic might say that Poland became a Christian nation only because the prince’s subjects might have found it politically expedient to follow the religion of their leader. But just as anyone baptized as an infant has an opportunity to reject or to ratify the faith handed on by his or her parents, the Polish people have shown over the last 1,050 years that they have freely chosen to practice the Catholic faith with great fervor, as the population of Poland today is over 90 percent Catholic.
The first Polish saint of note was St. Stanislaus, Bishop of Kraków, who was murdered within the first century of Christianity in Poland by the power-hungry ruler of Poland, known as Prince Boleslaus the Bold. St. Stanislaus, who lived from 1039 to 1079, is sometimes called the “Polish Becket,” because the circumstances of his death are so similar to those of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by agents of King Henry II of England in 1120.
There are two saints by the name of St. Hedwig, or Jadwiga in Polish. St. Hedwig of Silesia, a region located mostly in Poland, with small parts in what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany, was born in Bavaria, Germany, the daughter of the Duke of Croatia and Dalmatia. She was the aunt of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At the age of 12, Hedwig was married to Duke Henry of Silesia, the head of the Polish Royal family. She bore him seven children, and they had a happy marriage. Henry founded a Cistercian convent at Trebnitz, as well as hospitals and monasteries. Henry died in 1238 and Hedwig became a Cistercian at Trebnitz. She died in the convent on Oct. 15, 1243. Many miracles were reported after her death, and she was canonized in 1266.
St. Hedwig, Queen of Poland, was the youngest daughter of Louis the Great of Hungary. She married a Lithuanian prince named Władysław Jagiełło. She moved with her husband to live at Wawel Castle in Kraków. At Wawel Cathedral, she entrusted everyday of her life, as well as the fate of Poland, which she ruled, to the Crucified Christ. She devoted her inherited wealth to the development of the Polish Kingdom and handed out the royal jewels to the poor. She died young, shortly after the birth of her first child. In her will, she bequeathed her wealth for the reconstruction of the Jagiellonian University, named after her husband.
Among the illustrious alumni of the Jagiellonian University are the scholarly priest, Nicholas Copernicus, who sometime between 1510 and 1514 wrote an essay introducing the concept of a heliocentric solar system, in which the sun, rather than the earth, is the center of the solar system; and Pope St. John Paul II, who completed his habilitation thesis there in theology in 1953 and where he also taught ethics. I was privileged to spend a summer of intensive study of Polish language and culture at the Jagiellonian University in the Jubilee year 2000. It was especially during that summer that I came to love the city that St. John Paul II called “my beloved Kraków.”
St. John Cantius, a man of learning, prayer and charity, was a beloved and respected professor at the Jagiellonian University, where he taught for over half a century! He died in 1473 and is buried at the collegiate church of St. Anne, the university parish of the Jagiellonian University. Our pilgrimage group celebrated Mass at St. Anne Church and prayed at the tomb of St. John Cantius. He is the patron saint of the Canons of St. John Cantius, the community of priests who serve at St. Katharine Drexel Parish
During World War II, St. Maximilian Kolbe was a prisoner at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger, the father of a family, who, along with nine others prisoners, had been sentenced to death by starvation. Pope St. John Paul II canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe a saint on Oct. 10, 1982, calling him a “martyr of charity” and declaring him to be “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century.”
Our diocesan pilgrimage group visited Auschwitz on our first full day in Poland. We prayed at Block 11, which housed the “starvation cell” where Kolbe died on Aug. 14, 1941. It was a somber experience for all of us. Pope Francis made his own personal visit to Auschwitz later in the week. Before leaving Auschwitz, the Argentina-born pope signed the memorial book. He wrote in Spanish, “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”
On the website for the Auschwitz Museum, there is a link to a list of all the names of those imprisoned at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Most of the people imprisoned and killed there were Jewish, but there were also many Polish people who were arrested, interned and slain at Auschwitz, especially university professors, intellectuals and priests whom the Nazis viewed as a threat to their schemes. A search of my family surname produced a list of 17 people named “Paprocki” who were imprisoned and executed at Auschwitz. May they and all the victims of such vicious inhumanity rest in peace.
It was providential that the next day we visited the Shrine of Divine Mercy, which is associated with St. Faustina Kowalski, who died in 1938, seven years after having received her first mystical visions of the divine mercy radiating from the sacred heart of the Risen Christ. In his book, City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków, George Weigel wrote, “If the grotesque brutalities of the lethal twentieth- century totalitarianisms had made Kraków the city in which the worst of the twentieth century had happened, then Kraków was also the city in which the answer to those evils had to be given, even as the totalitarian shadows closed in on Poland from the west and from the east. Divine Mercy, radiating from the heart of the Risen Christ, was God’s answer to the human wickedness that had made the mid-twentieth century a slaughterhouse, the most lethal period in human history.”
The Gospel reading that day for our Mass at the Shrine of Divine Mercy spoke of how we are called to imitate Jesus, who “did not come to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). In my homily, I invited our young people to make the focus of their pilgrimage in Poland to pray and reflect on how they can better serve their families, their friends, their community, their parish, the entire Catholic Church, and ultimately, how best to spend their lives serving God. But I did not tell them exactly how to do this, since God calls each one of us in a personal and unique way. This is also in keeping with the themes of freedom of and responsibility, of which Pope St. John Paul II wrote and spoke so often. Freedom is not a license to do as we please, but a gift from God that allows us to make our own choice to give the gift of ourselves back to him in love. The key to understanding the virtue of responsibility is the root of the word, that is, in the response that we are invited to make in answer to the generous outpouring of love that God bestows on us.
Pope St. John Paul II, who originated the concept of World Youth Day, summed up well the whole point of this spiritual pilgrimage for young people in his homily at the last World Youth Day that he celebrated, in Toronto, Canada, in 2002: “You are our hope; the young are our hope! Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son... . Never, ever, settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that the grace of God makes possible in your life.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.