Benedict XVI in the land of Karol Wojtyla
Meekness and courage of the Pope in Poland
Of Benedict XVI’s visit many different images remain in the memory: from the homage to his predecessor to the human warmth of the crowd. From the defense of Tradition to the solicitude of the visit to Auschwitz. An account by the Vatican expert of La Stampa
by Marco Tosatti
Benedict XVI saluting the crowd that greeted his arrival at Warsaw airport on his apostolic visit to Poland from 25 to 28 May 2006
The icon of memory
The friendship linking Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla, two very different people, yet united by steadfast, imperceptible affinities, is no secret. Benedict XVI resolved to pay homage to his great predecessor in the country he so loved; and sought to grasp the mystery of that quite extraordinary man almost by questioning the genius loci. Because, and this he explained in the general audience immediately after his return to Rome, faith «is not something solely of the mind or of feeling, real faith involves the whole person: thoughts, affections, intentions, relations, body, activity, daily work». And the Pope had seemed to peer, with those intense, penetrating eyes, into the places where Karol’s life had been spent, and above all at the sanctuaries that had marked his life: Czestochowa, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and of the Divine Mercy, in Lagiewniki, just out of Krakow. The young Wojtyla went to Kalwaria to pray, in a landscape of forests and mountains; in Lagiewniki lived Sister Faustina Kowalska, bearer of the message of the Divine Mercy, of which John Paul II made himself echo and interpreter, and that Benedict XVI has made his own: «A central message precisely for our time: Mercy as power of God, as divine limit against the evil of the world». In Kalwaria the German Pope showed one of the narrow breaches in an armor woven of reserve and shyness. In Wadowice he said: «I reached the birthplace of my great predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II, with great emotion, in the city of his childhood and youth. Wadowice could not be left off the itinerary of the pilgrimage I am making on Polish soil in his tracks. I decided to halt precisely here, in Wadowice, in the places where his faith awoke and ripened, to pray together with you that he may soon be raised to the glory of the altars. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the great German poet, said: “Who wants to understand a poet, should visit his country”. Thus also to understand the life and ministry of John Paul II, it was necessary to come to his naive city. He himself confessed that here, in Wadowice, “it all began: life began, school began, studying, theatre began… and the priesthood”». Shortly after, in Kalwaria, he pronounced the words that would ensure him membership of the “Saint now” party”: «I would like to say that I also, like dear Cardinal Stanislaus – he was speaking impromptu – hope that Providence may soon grant the beatification and canonization of our beloved Pope John Paul II».
The icon of human warmth
It is difficult to resist “Polish hospitality”. And in fact Benedict XVI let himself be won over. It is true that, as a good German, he was ready to submit to the fascination of what lies eastwards; it’s true that a large basis of his liking, as he himself admitted, was there already, fed by the Poles’ flags that wave in such numbers at every general audience; it’s true that Poland is “different” from the rest of Europe, a country in which Catholicism, the faith, is still a widespread legacy, not a thing which has to be spoken of with caution in public, for fear of offending other people’s feelings; it’s true that on that basis, on that faith Pope Ratzinger relied, and how, for taking off again in the Old Continent; but all that said, I have never seen him smile as much. And a very special relationship was set up. Just to start with, with the numbers. If the reception seemed warm on the day of his arrival in Warsaw, but not like election day, everything had already changed by his first mass in Pilsudski Square, in front of the historic “Victoria” hotel. Without letting myself get entangled in the usual dance of difference between the numbers counted by enthusiasts and sceptics, for a Friday morning there were a great many people. And to the amazement of many, there were people who knelt at the consecration: on the grass, on the pavement, in the middle of the street.
The crescendo continued with the arrival in Czestochowa. I remember John Paul II, in 1983, while the country was still caged in by General Jaruzelski’s coup d’état; and the crowd that stretched from the bastions over the great open space to the trees. Benedict XVI was not treated to lesser generosity. Tens of thousands of people shared with the Pope, kneeling in front of them, in the most total silence, the adoration of the Eucharist, and then they chanted the litanies to Our Lady, they went through a liturgy interwoven with tradition, with a simplicity and a naturalness quite unexpected; and they took Communion in thousands, and Polish president Lech Kaczynski was the first to receive the host from the hands of the Pope.
Krakow was regal in its reception. And how could one resist the crowd in Kalwaria shouting: «Wir lieben dich», «We love you», and answered with a thunderous: «We shall remember! We shall remember», to his plea to pray for him and for the Church? Or showered him with «Sto Lat», «A hundred years», the celebratory chant that up to a few year ago was reserved for Karol Wojtyla? It was impossible to resist, and in fact he didn’t resist. So much so that in Blonie, on Saturday evening, during the encounter-vigil with young people, Pope Ratzinger was clearly seen to move his lips, as if joining in the young people’s songs, and clapping his hands in tune. A hint, a sketch, immediately suppressed, almost as if he were afraid of exaggerating, or of wanting to imitate John Paul II, who used to lend himself whole-heartedly to the spectacle. But enough to betray his delight, the joy transparent also in the smile and in the face. He was touched, in evident manner; and the dyke of his shyness seemed to give way under the overwhelming wave of affection.
28 May, Benedict XVI praying at Auschwitz concentration camp, in front of the 22 plaques recalling in various languages the victims of Nazi folly
He dotted many is and crossed many ts. He recalled that at the beginning of his pontificate John Paul II had written to Cardinal Wyszynski: «This Polish Pope who today, full of fear of God but also of faith, begins the new pontificate, would not be sitting on Peter’s Chair had there not been your faith, that did not bend before prison and suffering, your heroic hope, your trust in the Mother of the Church to the end; had there not been Jasna Góra and all this period in the history of the Church in our country, bound up with your service as bishop and primate». And Ratzinger commented: «How can we not thank God today for what came to be in your country and throughout the whole world, during the pontificate of John Paul II? Before our eyes entire political, economic and social systems have changed. People in different countries have regained their freedom and sense of dignity. “Let us not forget the great workings of God”». That much for gratitude and history. On Christianity: «As in past centuries so also today there are persons or milieu that, by neglecting this centuries-old Tradition, would like to falsify the word of Christ and rid the Gospel of truths that are, according to them, too uncomfortable for modern man. They try to create the impression that all is relative: even the truths of faith are alleged to depend on the historical situation and on human evaluation. But the Church cannot silence the Spirit of Truth». The bishops and the Pope are responsible for the truth of the Gospel, but «every Christian is bound to continually compare his own convictions with the dictates of the Gospel and of the Tradition of the Church in the commitment to remain faithful to the word of Christ, even when it is demanding and humanly difficult to understand. We must not fall into the temptation of relativism or of the subjective and selective interpretation of Holy Writ. Only the whole truth can open to us our belonging to Christ dead and risen for our salvation».
A second school of thought, without denying that Benedict XVI could have also been referring to that specific case, tends to read a wider implication in those lines: that they call a halt to “self-flagellation”, to the mea culpa decided by John Paul II at the time of the Grand Jubilee of 2000, aimed at the cleansing of the memory of the Church on the threshold of the third millennium. And on the same occasion, Benedict XVI decided to dot another “i”: «The faithful expect one thing only from priests: that they be specialists in favoring the encounter of man with God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economy, in housing or in politics. It is expected of him that he be an expert in the spiritual life». And finally, he reminded the young people in Blonie Park in Krakow how difficult it can be to say aloud that one is Christian: «This refusal of Jesus by men, mentioned by Saint Peter, has gone on through the history of mankind and come down even to our times. It doesn’t take much sharpness of mind to detect the manifold proofs of the rejection of Jesus, even where God has granted us to grow up. Often Jesus is ignored, mocked, hailed as king of the past, but not of today and even less of tomorrow, cast aside into the junk room of questions and people who should not be spoken of aloud and in public… A strong faith must go through ordeals. A living faith must always grow. Our faith in Jesus Christ, to remain such, must face up to the lack of faith in others».
Benedict XVI looking at a picture of John Paul II given him by the faithful of Wadowice, 27 May
It was impressive to see Benedict XVI going solitary into the lager, moving ahead alone, followed, many yards back, by cardinals, bishops, and the crowd. Alone, as if he had to face an enemy, and the others were holding back in apprehension. His face taut, pinched. A thought crossed my mind: so Jesus must have walked toward Gethsemane that night. Alone. Benedict XVI advanced, with his short rapid steps, toward the place that is the symbol of Evil, for the third time: he had already been there, to Auschwitz, in 1979, with John Paul II, and then the following year with the German bishops. And truly he moved as if knows the way well. A flurry of images fix themselves in the memory: the prayer at the wall of the death, the wind blowing off his skullcap, the sign of the cross; the tears of a survivor, the taut face of the Pontiff as the lament of Caddish rises in the air, the prayer for the dead, and the rainbow behind him, a sign that sealed the visit, in a sky swollen with clouds and storm.
Benedict XVI’s words have aroused – as often happens when a Pope touches upon the Jewish world – reactions and arguments; there is no point in going over them here. But the opening of the Pontiff’s speech, an impassioned cry, surely deserves to be remembered. «To speak in this place of horror, of the piling up of crimes against God and against man that has no equal in history, is almost impossible – and is particularly difficult and oppressive for a Christian, for a Pope who comes from Germany. In such a place words fail, in the end only stunned silence can remain - a silence that is an inward cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you bear all this? It is in this attitude of silence that inwardly we bow deeply to the numberless crowd of those who suffered here and were put to death; this silence, however, then becomes a loud demand for forgiveness and reconciliation, a cry to the living God never to permit such a thing again». Joseph Ratzinger, as «son of the German people», has said of himself: «I could not not come here. I had to come». Too dense and rich his speech to try to give a summary. But there is a passage that perhaps marks a particular moment in relations between Jews and Catholics; and surely throws particular light on Pope Ratzinger’s understanding of the history and the role of the Jewish people. «At bottom, those violent criminals, by the annihilation of this people, aimed to kill the God who called Abraham, who speaking on Sinai established the directional criteria for mankind that remain valid for ever. If this people, simply by its existence, constitutes a testimony of that God who spoke to mankind and took on its burden, then that God finally had to be dead and dominion belong only to man - to those who believed themselves the strong who had been able to make themselves masters of the world. With the destruction of Israel, with the Shoah, they wanted, in the end, to tear up the root on which the Christian faith is based, replacing it definitely with a do-it-yourself faith, faith in the dominion of man, of the strong». But reading the words of Benedict XVI, one gets the impression that the allusions (like that relating to the extermination of the Rom: «They became counted among the useless elements in universal history, in an ideology in which what counted was only the measurable useful; all the rest, according to their conception, was classified as lebensunwertes Leben – a life not worth living») are very much more relevant than we think, and refer not only to the evident bestial iniquity of sixty years ago, but speak to the West of abortion and euthanasia.