On the Trail of Pope John Paul II in Krakow

by JoHarrington

Catholic Krakow was the home city of Pope John Paul II. Tourists seeking to honor and discover more about that notable pontiff will not be disappointed.

There is a palpable pride in Krakow concerning its most famous Catholic son. From tour guides to taxi drivers, and people in the street, the reverence in which he is held was apparent in every word.

Plaques mark the places where Pope John Paul II lived and worshiped. Posters - several feet high and dominating the street - depict his face, smiling down upon the population that once gathered here en masse to receive his blessing.

A museum preserves his bedroom exactly as he left it. The cathedral contains relics of his blood. Krakow is most definitely the city to visit for the pontiff's memorabilia.

Wawel Cathedral: Home to a Relic of Pope John Paul II

This is the place where the man who would be pontiff was first ordained into the priesthood. For many years, he led the mass here.

Image: Wawel CathedralI'll be honest, I thought I was looking at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.

In fact, until about five minutes ago - over a month after visiting Poland - I believed that I'd stood in front of the pontiff's mausoleum.

In my defense, Wawel Cathedral was heaving with people. Tour groups and school parties vied for space, pressed close so not to lose their fellows. Harassed leaders yelled over each other, trying to impart information through the din, while shepherding their charges through the crowds.

Even those with perfect hearing were struggling to comprehend our own tour guide, particularly since she spoke so fast in heavily accented English. I didn't have a chance. I'm partially deaf.

My clues had been picked up from the commentary outside, and all I could lip-read or observe now. I knew that this was once the primary cathedral in all Poland. It was the burial place for every monarch in Polish history, and several other worthies besides.

I lip-read the name of Pope John Paul II.

I saw a sodding great mausoleum. It was impressive enough to elicit a gasp, as soon as I clapped eyes on it. There was a framed section clearly headlined Pope John Paul II, containing what appeared to be a red seal, and turned out to be a circular vial of blood. There was a pope looking hat engraved into the monument!

Image: Mausoleum of St Stanislaus in Wawel Cathedral
Image: Mausoleum of St Stanislaus in Wawel Cathedral

The image does not convey the sheer size of the mausoleum. My head was craned right back in order to survey the gleaming sculptures atop the silver coffin. That chest was long enough to persuade me that an adult's remains could be inside.

But it wasn't the mausoleum of Pope John Paul II. It could have been though! The pontiff did muse upon coming home upon his demise, but ultimately left the decision to the Council of Cardinals. They dismissed Krakow out of hand and shoved him under St Peter's Basilica in Rome instead.

That monumental tomb in Wawel Cathedral belonged instead to St Stanislaus.

In compensation for not getting the Pope's Earthly remains, the Vatican sent the blood relic to Krakow instead. It was this which rested upon the saint's mausoleum, causing me so much confusion.

However, this does not end the former Pope's association with Wawel Cathedral.

Wawel Cathedral: Site of John Paul II's Priestly Ordination

Within these walls, the young Karol Józef Wojtyła became a priest. He was also ordained as bishop, then cardinal here too.

After his death, the city of Krakow commissioned a statue of John Paul II. It stands outside Wawel Cathedral, directing a latter day flock towards the doors.

Catholic pilgrims following his statue's direction are now walking in his footsteps. The former Pope had close personal ties with the cathedral. Some of his most significant milestones took place there.

The name John Paul came with his elevation as the Vicar of Christ. In Krakow, he'd been known by his birth-name of Karol Józef Wojtyła.

Born in the nearby town of Wadowice, the teenage Karol was pious, but not particularly drawn to serving the church. In fact he arrived in the city with aspirations towards becoming an actor. World War II kind of put a damper on that.

There's a touch of the miraculous about the oft-repeated story of Karol's calling. In the immediate aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, Poland's Nazi occupiers became concerned (with very good reason) that the same scenes could play out in Krakow too.

As a pre-emptive action, tens of thousands of the city's young men were seized and spirited out of the region.

Karol was in Krakow that day. He lived there. As the warning came that stormtroopers were closing in on his street, the young actor fell to his knees in a room (or basement) of his uncle's house. He prayed fervently that he would not be found.

But, as guards crashed through the front door and began their search of the property, it seemed like his prayers could come to no avail.

They walked right past him. As Karol prayed in plain sight, the Nazis tore through every potential hidey-hole in the house, yet seemed not to see him at all. As soon as they left, he and his female cousin stared at each other in utter disbelief. But there was no time to waste.

She secreted him away to the Archbishop's Palace, where the waiting clerics were pleased to lend Karol a cassock and pretend that he was one of them. He couldn't make liars of them, especially since it seemed like some guardian angel had kept him safe from arrest.

Karol was ordained into the priesthood in Wawel Cathedral. He officiated over his first ever mass there. Twelve years later, he was back before that same altar being confirmed as Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, serving under Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak.

From then, Karol's progress appeared nothing short of astronomical. Within months, he was being ordained as Poland's youngest ever bishop, again in Wawel Cathedral.

Four years later, following the death of Archbishop Baziak, Karol became the main priest in Wawel Cathedral. He was made Vicar Capitular - a kind of temporary administrator, who keeps things ticking over until the new archbishop can be appointed.

There's a certain inevitability about the fact that the new Archbishop of Krakow turned out to be Karol himself. From there, it was just a short step towards becoming a cardinal, and finally the Pope. All but the latter occurred for him in Wawel Cathedral, so yes, his ties there were very personal indeed.

The Jewish Ghetto in Krakow was the last stop before transportation to a concentration camp. Its final clearance was immortalized in 'Schindler's List'.
The old enamelware factory has a venerable history. Its story retold in the movie 'Schindler's List', this real world location is now an amazing museum.
Nowa Huta was Stalin's gift to Poland. A shiny new steelworks and model homes steeped in the ideology of Communist architecture. Crazy Guides Tours take you there.
Certain districts of Krakow may seem very familiar, even to those who've never stepped foot in Poland before. Steven Spielberg filmed 'Schindler's List' there.

The Story of the Young Pope John Paul II

These books and DVDs focus on the life of Karol Józef Wojtyła before he ever left Krakow to become the pontiff in Rome.

The Love for Pope John Paul II in Krakow

Catholics around the world may have mixed views on the papacy of John Paul II. But never in Krakow, where he lit a candle in the darkness.

It's impossible to miss the association between Krakow and John Paul II, when visiting the city.

Everywhere you look there are souvenirs - books, pamphlets, postcards, statuettes, rosary beads bearing his face in the center - to hammer home those links.

But that could have just been for the tourists, in the same way as Haworth pushes the Brontes at every turn, or Stratford pulses to a beat of Shakespeare.

In Krakow, it's much more than that. Neither my friend nor I are Catholics, yet conversations with local people touched upon the pontiff quite regularly. There was a passion there. There was a discernible reverence in their tone, and excitement too.

We were there just days after the announcement had been made that John Paul II was going to be canonized as a saint. I'd missed the bulletin, but my friend was on the ball. She asked a tour driver about the reaction in Krakow, and I watched his face light up.

He took us out of his way to show us sites of significance to the pontiff. His passion was infectious. I found myself staring up at windows, where another religion's spiritual leader had once peered out, and considered myself in awe.

Nor was the driver alone in such sentiments. I heard them repeated throughout Krakow.

Pope John Paul II was more than the pontiff for the people there. It even transcended the familiarity of him being a home-grown son. He was spoken about as a hero, already sainted in the Polish mind, before the Vatican ever confirmed it. To hear the tales, witness the inner fervor, was to understand that there was something more than a mere human could ever encapsulate.

Our driver finally articulated it, and aware, I heard it hinted at on other tours and in other conversations too. During the days of Communism and Polish Solidarity, Pope John Paul II had represented hope.

Nor had his death changed that one iota.

Archdiocese Museum: John Paul II Memorabilia and Rooms

If you are visiting Krakow as a Catholic tourist, then this is a must see place.

There's no missing John Paul II's old home in Kanonicza Street, Krakow.

Every tour guide pauses outside; gigantic banners beckon from the entrance, resplendent with his features; around the side, in the adjoining street, a whole window is filled with an image of him as pontiff, poised ready to bless or advise.

When John Paul II came back to Krakow, during official papal visits, he used to sit before the open windows here and speak with the people in the street below.

The official audiences were conducted from the room above the front door. Those addresses were scheduled and attracted huge crowds to hear him. That was him as the Pope.

But more informal and ad hoc were those appearances in the side window. That was more Karol, holy son of Krakow, taking time out to chat with whoever happened to be passing along the street below.

Those visits would be home-comings in every sense of the word. As Father Karol Wojtyla, he actually lived in those adjacent buildings from 1951 until he was made Archbishop in 1963. Then he moved to the Bishop's Palace at 3 Franciszkanska Street.

Yet it was to 19-21 Kanonicza Street that he returned as Pope. He slept in his old bed, in his old room, and presumably felt absolutely at home.

This is now the Archdiocese Museum. It is almost completely devoted to Pope John Paul II, with exhibits made up of the things that he left behind. When he left for the final time, his private rooms were not touched. But for a bit of dusting and the sweep of a vacuum cleaner, time stands still there. It looks like he only just departed and could be back at any moment.

These rooms too can be glimpsed by visitors peeping in from the doorways.

While the Archdiocese Museum is mostly all about its former resident, there are occasional exhibits from the wider Catholic church. These include Medieval artwork and items on loan from the Vatican.

Image: John Paul II's Home in Krakow
Image: John Paul II's Home in Krakow
Photograph by Jo Harrington

More Places to Visit in Catholic Krakow

Catholics wishing to see more will find plenty on offer above and beyond those places linked directly to the former Pope.

The city is deeply and proudly Catholic. There are beautiful shrines in hidden places, just awaiting your chance discovery. You can hardly go five minutes without spotting another nun walking down the street, and the shops are filled with religious icons, arts, jewelry and crafts.

However the main attractions are undoubtedly the ancient places of worship.

Krakow's many churches survived British bombs, German occupation and Soviet ideology. They are truly spectacular, impressive even to someone like me, who probably missed the significance of much that I surveyed.

Layers of history can be gleaned from the artwork and the architecture, the sheer majesty and color is awe-inspiring. Stories and legends cling to these places, adding fascination to the beauty, yet it's all about the present too.

These are still busy, vital centers of spirituality. In amongst the gaping tourists, there can be found a quiet pew, and people grasping a moment's peace to pray. I'm not a Catholic, but it felt like a good place for it. The atmosphere practically buzzes with the cumulative centuries of worship there.

I recommend a visit to Krakow's Medieval churches for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They will not disappoint.

Books by or about Pope John Paul II

Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium

Memory And Identity: Conversations At The Dawn Of The Millennium by John Paul II [Pope]

View on Amazon

Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body

By Pope John Paul II Translated and introduced by Michael M. Waldstein In this new critical translation of Pope John Paul II’s magnum opus, internationally renowned biblical sch...

View on Amazon

The Life and Legacy of Pope John Paul II

On July 5, Pope Francis approved John Paul for sainthood, saying that Pope John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized together. The date has not yet been established, althoug...

View on Amazon

John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father

From New York Times bestselling author Peggy Noonan comes "a beautifully written testimony about . . . the most historically recognized pope" (Library Journal) With such accla i...

View on Amazon

Prayers and Devotions: 365 Daily Meditations

This treasury of selected passages from the writings and addresses of perhaps the most impressive leader of the Catholic Church the world has ever known offers, as its editor su...

View on Amazon

The Pope & The CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard

John Paul II showed me what real leadership looks like. He modeled for me how to pursue our God-given potential. Not coincidentally, this also makes us and those around us bette...

View on Amazon

Updated: 02/03/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

Ah! That makes a lot of sense. I knew that from a historical perspective, without having applied it to the situation. So that's what British churches once looked like? Wow! It really brings home to me what we lost.

frankbeswick on 12/19/2013

The reason that the churches in Krakow are more colourful than churches in Britiain are is that we had the Reformation with all its iconoclasm and the Poles did not. In prereformation times we had colourful churches. The protestant zealots smashed the statues and destroyed images, rather like the Wahabis and Taliban do today.

JoHarrington on 12/18/2013

There was real reverence for him on the streets of Krakow. It felt like something more than just a man - even if he was a Pope and about to be canonized - it felt like they were talking about a deity. But I'm not Catholic either, so perhaps I misinterpreted the reverence.

Teresa on 12/18/2013

I'm not Catholic, so I guess it isn't surprising that I hadn't heard of him before now, but he has an interesting story. It's no surprise people in Poland take pride in him :)

JoHarrington on 11/20/2013

They really were. They were nothing like the churches in Britain. The sheer array of colour was immense.

I agree. It must have been terrifying in Krakow at that time.

Ember on 11/20/2013

Those churches must have been amazingly beautiful.

I liked the bit where you wrote that there was a touch of the miraculous in his calling. What a frightening time.

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