The man who would become St. John Paul II grew up, studied, and served as a priest and archbishop in Kraków, Poland. And today, on the heels of his sainthood, the city is ramping up celebrations of the person many consider to be the greatest Pole in history.
Imagine you’re Polish in the 1970s. Your country was devastated by World War II, and has struggled under an oppressive regime ever since. Food shortages are epidemic. Lines stretch around the block even to buy a measly scrap of bread. Life is bleak, oppressive, and seems hopeless. Then someone who speaks your language — someone you’ve admired your entire life, and one of the only people you’ve seen successfully stand up to the regime — becomes one of the world’s most influential people. A Pole like you is the leader of a billion Catholics. He makes you believe that the impossible can happen. He says to you again and again: “Have no fear.” And you begin to believe it.
Many people (including Mikhail Gorbachev) credit Pope John Paul II for the collapse of Eastern European communism. His compatriots — even the relatively few atheists and agnostics — saw John Paul II both as the greatest hero of their people…and as a member of the family, like a kindly grandfather.
A speedy nine years after his death, Karol Wojtyła was made a saint. And today, when you travel in Poland, you’ll find St. John Paul II wherever you go.
St. John Paul II seems to have a chapel dedicated to him in every Polish church. Seeing a man we all grew up with actually up on the wall, glorified with the apostles and other saints, you feel we all experienced the charismatic presence of an historic figure who will be honored for ages to come.