Comment Comment and Features

Kraków, the city of the century

Karol Wojtyła in the 1960s, then Archbishop of Kraków [CNS]

With the Holy Father personally inaugurating registration for World Youth Day 2016 next summer, the eyes of the Catholic world will turn towards the royal and ancient capital of Poland. Kraków, city of St Faustina and of the pope of mercy, St John Paul the Great, deserves the attention of not only the Church, but the world. The 20th century took place here.

The historian’s eye sees here all the principal events of a century of geopolitics. The eyes of faith see the depths of iniquity and the heights of holiness. Kraków will be the city of mercy for World Youth Day. It could be said to be the city of the millennium.

The millennium opened with Kraków a free city in an independent Poland, spiritual capital to a sovereign and vibrant people. For much of the previous hundred years, such a hopeful outcome was in doubt.

In 1900 Kraków, city of Polish kings, belonged to the Habsburg empire. Poland had been erased from the map of Europe. The Polish nation, deprived of the instruments of sovereignty, turned to its spiritual and cultural heritage to sustain itself: the legacy of the kings buried in Wawel Cathedral of Kraków, and the relics of St Stanislaus, the martyr-bishop, at Skalka, a short walk down from Wawel hill.

That challenge of sustaining a nationality without a nation state – defining a nation by culture rather than political sovereignty – would give shape to much of 20th-century geopolitics and national liberation movements.

When, in the 1903 conclave to elect the successor to Pope Leo XIII, Cardinal Jan Puzyna of Kraków presented the veto of Emperor Franz Joseph, a customary privilege granted to Catholic sovereigns, it marked the final years of the altar-and-throne arrangements that marked the ancient regime.

After the 1903 conclave, St Pius X banned the imperial veto, and within 15 years the empires themselves were gone – the German kaiser, the Russian tsar, the Habsburg emperor, even the Ottoman sultan. The 20th century would bring ecclesial life independent of – and often opposed by – state power.

After the Great War, Poland emerged once again on the map of Europe as an independent republic, only to be immediately invaded by Bolshevik Russia. The appetite of Moscow to enslave the lands, the peoples and the churches of eastern and central Europe would give shape to both the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War.

Poland rebuffed Russia in 1920 – Poles call it the Miracle on the Vistula – and Kraków and its sister Galician city of L’viv remained outside of Moscow’s grasp. Poland’s freedom was precarious. In the 1930s it watched the rearmament of Germany to the west and Stalin’s Ukrainian terror famine to the east. The time for the two powers to carve up Poland again was coming.

During these precious years of independence, a young boy grew up in the nearby town of Wadowice. Karol Wojtyła’s father had fought in the army of the Habsburg emperors; the last of which was Emperor Charles, whom that boy would grow up to beatify in 2004. The young man would move to Kraków for university studies, and was serving First Friday Mass in Wawel Cathedral when the Luftwaffe’s bombers arrived on September 1, 1939.

A few weeks later the Red Army would rumble in from the east. Kraków was taken by Hitler, and its archbishop, Adam Sapieha, would prove a lion in its defence. L’viv – Leopolis, the city of the lion – would be taken by Stalin, and its archbishop, the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, would prove equally leonine.

Between the two wars a young Polish nun of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Faustina Kowalska, received apparitions from the Lord Jesus, who asked that she promote devotion to the Divine Mercy. Sixty-two years after her death in Kraków in October 1938, the image of Divine Mercy was ubiquitous in parishes the world over; Sunday within the octave of Easter was declared Divine Mercy Sunday, and she was the first canonised saint of the new millennium.

The revelation of Divine Mercy took place a short drive away from a veritable icon of a world without mercy. In the Kraków archdiocese the Nazis built what John Paul would call the “Golgotha of the modern world”: Auschwitz, the death camp of the Jews.

Polish Christians died at Auschwitz too, none more famous than the greatest Polish missionary and evangelist of his generation, Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of charity who kept watch at the very gates of hell.

Kraków’s “liberation” by the Red Army meant that Poland and her neighbours would lose twice over, first in the war, second in the communist peace.

It was the election of the archbishop of Kraków in 1978 that would mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. He returned in 1979 to his “beloved Kraków”, heart of Poland’s millennial Christian heritage, and 10 years later Poland was free. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself was consigned to the ash heap of history. The 20th century bore the burden of too much history. The pilgrims who come next year will see that all of it took place here.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (07/8/15).

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