For people planning a trip or pilgrimage to Poland this summer, I can recommend an excellent CTS booklet, Poland: A Pilgrim’s Companion by David Baldwin. Written with the World Youth Day in Krakow during 25-31 July in mind, Baldwin’s booklet is nevertheless a clear, readable and cheap guide that can fit in the pocket. Unlike a normal tourist book, the country is seen from a Catholic perspective and through the eyes of a believer, so will appeal to those of faith rather than the average Lonely Planet traveller.
There is full coverage of all the sites in and around Krakow, including Wadowice, the birthplace of St John Paul II. Alongside this, there are descriptions of other national devotional sites, such as the extraordinary church, Arka Pana (the Ark of the Lord) in the new town of Nowa Huta, and the even more extraordinary chapel of St Kinga, carved in salt, deep in the salt mines in Wielicszka.
Baldwin includes a visit to the sombre memorial of Auschwitz. His description of the infamous site of the former concentration camp put me in mind of another place he visited: the convent of St Joseph in a Krakow suburb where there is a shrine to St Faustina, to whom Christ revealed His message of Divine Mercy. Baldwin recalls St Faustina’s vision of hell, in which she explains that the torments suffered by those who end up there: loss of God; perpetual remorse of conscience; permanence of their state; being consumed by a spiritual fire; the company of evil spirits and the souls of the damned; the presence of Satan; and finally, despair.
Remember, this is the nun who also gave the world the revelations of God’s Divine Mercy: speaking to the then Sister Faustina Christ told her: “Tell souls where they are to look for solace; that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]. There the greatest of miracles take place … Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint, there would be no [hope of] restoration … it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God’s mercy!”
Thus hell – and the possibility of forgiveness; David Baldwin relates an anecdote which demonstrates the dramatic link between the two. He happened to bump into a Polish priest at the Divine Mercy shrine in Krakow and explained to him that he was “dreading going to Auschwitz the next day.” The Polish priest then informed him that his own great-uncle, a Jesuit provincial, had heard the confession of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, before he went to his execution.
Baldwin writes: “This of course rocked me back and I could only think of asking, “Did your uncle think it a ‘good’ confession?” “He must have done,” was the reply, “because he took Holy Communion to him the next day.”
What a miracle this is: that a man whose soul must have been “like a decaying corpse” can, if he is genuinely repentant, be forgiven his sins and reconciled to God. When Baldwin showed his unease at this incredible truth, the priest told him that his great-uncle’s personal interpretation of the Purgatory Höss would have to suffer before entering heaven, would be to have to face all his victims individually and convince them of his remorse. This is pure speculation, of course.
Although Baldwin introduces Poland as a country that has joined the EU in 2004, after reading his booklet this seems the least relevant aspect of this ancient, proud and Christian nation.