Monday 1 August was all about St John Paul II. For many of us, he was the Pope we had known for most of our lives. He had been a key part of WYD Week but it was now time to explore his life and ministry in more detail.
We left Krakow and headed for Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the place St John Paul II’s father had first taken him after his mother died, and a place of faith formation for him throughout his life. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest Calvary in Poland, dating back to 1602. There are 43 shrines there based around chapels of the Holy Land. It is known as the place to heal broken souls which is why JPII’s father had taken him there. During the communist reign in Poland John Paul II used to take his congregation hiking in these woods and because it was illegal and dangerous for priests to gather with their parishioners he would instruct them to simply call him ‘uncle’ if questioned.
A gentle rain was falling when we arrived and there was plenty of atmospheric mist in the beautiful hills. Johanna Soo and I went in search of the shrines and took some beautiful photos. We were walking in St John Paul II’s footsteps and those of so many before us. The little chapels were gorgeous; each unique.
We then headed on to the place of his birth, Wadowice. He lived here until he was 18. The square and church that stand around and beside his family home are beautiful, but as usual there were thousands of pilgrims in town so the lines were long everywhere. The main part of our time there was a visit to the museum that has been expertly built around his family apartment. It is a wonderful museum full of interesting information about Karol Wojtyla – his childhood, his vocation and his time as Pope.
A stunning part of the museum was an interactive screen showing all of the 104 apostolic visits during his years as the Pope. On the floor there were dozens of see-through containers with soil from each of these places in them. It reminded me of his habit of arriving in a country and kissing the ground when he got off the plane. The gun used by Ali Agca to shoot the Pope in 1981 was displayed, along with photos of the Pope visiting him in prison soon after to offer his forgiveness and shake his hand.
His motto, ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ’, featured prominently.
That evening we arrived at the beautiful retreat centre in the Beskidy Mountains. We were all pretty amazed by the awesome view – it was the ultimate pay-off after a rather treacherous journey up the steep and narrow road in our big bus (the bus drivers on these tour buses are not afraid of anything!).
After a lovely buffet dinner we celebrated Mass. Fr Greg reflected on our experiences over the weekend.
“We got a taste of what refugees might feel like; a taste of walking in someone else’s shoes. Ultimately, we knew we would get home, have a shower and a meal; it was all going to be ok for us. There are millions around the world who don’t have those graces.
“We have to open our hearts at the Eucharist in order to be transformed, so that our light will reflect what we are to God. We have to strip away our baggage and step into others’ shoes in order to be transformed. If we do this God’s mercy will shine brightly from us,” said Fr Greg.
It was good to reflect with Bishop Bill over breakfast the next morning about the experiences of our journey so far. Erin McCort and I were recounting the long walks to and from Campus Misericordiae and Bishop Bill jokingly said that after the effort we put it we should expect to “spend less time in purgatory”. He had had his own long journey home in Krakow. All the Bishops stayed together and Bishop Bill went on a walk, took a wrong turn and ended up in the ‘backpacker area’ of Krakow, many kilometres from his accommodation. He ended up with some decent blisters so we told him that he had indeed walked in unity with us over the weekend. He was definitely there with us in our discomfort!
Many of us had been looking forward to visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp. It seems strange to say ‘looking forward’ to it, but for most of us these atrocities happened in our parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime and we have grown up learning about this most awful chapter in history. I think we all wanted to bear witness to the pain of those who were lost, but never forgotten.
We were disappointed to find that the normal tour had been adapted for WYD. Given the massive number of pilgrims that would be visiting, the memorial site could not allow groups through the buildings or museum and because of the young age of many pilgrims they had taken down many of the more graphic images from around the site. These changes definitely had an impact on the tour, but it would be impossible not to be utterly moved and horrified irrespective of the displays or the nature of the tour. Just walking under the gate at Auschwitz where the famous words are displayed, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ or ‘Work sets you free’ is haunting.
The Germans murdered at least 1.1 million people in Auschwitz – mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma Romanys? (gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war. We had just come from the vigil and final Mass for WYD where there were about that many people in the crowd. You couldn’t help but imagine all the people at Campus Misericordiae suddenly gone. The enormity of it is just staggering.
The Birkenau part of the camp is enormous. This is where people arrived in filthy carriages on the train with no idea of what was to befall them. As soon as they got off they were assessed and split into two groups – those who would die immediately and those who would be put to work. Families were split apart; children torn from their parents. As we walked the length of that train track you couldn’t help but think of your own family arriving there, completely unaware and unprepared for the horrors they would encounter; with no time to say goodbye to each other. It is really too much for your brain to process.
One of the pilgrims, who was on the pilgrimage with his son, told me that when we were walking in that part of Birkenau he said to his son, ‘Well this is where we would have been separated’ and his son said ‘why’ and he said ‘well you would have been considered fit for work and I wouldn’t’. This had a profound impact on this particular young pilgrim.
We passed the barracks and the all but demolished gas chambers and crematoria. We saw water pits everywhere, where the ashes of victims were buried. We saw images taken by the Nazis of people straight off the trains; the innocent eyes of young children who would never grow up staring out at us.
The outskirts of the camp are beautiful and peaceful; I didn’t expect this.
We were quiet. It is not a place for talking. We each, in our own way, bore witness to the horrors that happened here. Many of us bought books at the conclusion of the tour so that we could learn more now that we know what it looked like and could better imagine the stories of so many.
Afterwards we drove to the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim which was very close. It was set up as a place to ‘fill us with hope and make us experience the victory of humanity’, according to the brochure at the main desk. We celebrated Mass together in a tent on the grounds. This was really important for us as a group, especially after everything we had just witnessed and felt. Bishop Bill spoke to us about our need for a redeemer.
“So many were so ruthlessly and dispassionately put to death here. We have to stare this place directly in the face; our human family must never forget what happened here.
“There is always something in the darkest of human stories that points to the other side of humanity; small acts of kindness or moments when humanity broke through.
“We have deep flaws in our humanity. Auschwitz, Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria show us that. We need the grace of God, won for us through Christ. If we can grow in our responsiveness then we are capable of achieving something against the darkest side of humanity. The worst the Nazis could do was not the end. Evil doesn’t win.
“We need to join our lives to Christ and offer our lives as service, remembering all those who died here and continue to die today. We can redress the balance and make a difference,” said Bishop Bill.
We prayed for the people lost in this place and those left behind, for those whose humanity was made black by these things, for those who give inspiration; who volunteer in places of poverty, hunger and danger and for Pope Francis.
“I was delighted to hear him ask you to take risks,” said Bishop Bill.
I have been amazed at the ability of the clergy on our pilgrimage to tie our experiences to scripture and our current reality. They have all done an exceptional job of making the Mass come to life for us and really resonate for each of us.
At the conclusion of Mass Sr Mary from the Centre spoke to us about what we can take away from our visit.
“You need to listen to the voice of the earth, of your heart, of the other and of God. You should take one concrete thing away with you. It might be an image or a face. We must create the opposite of this and contribute to reconciliation. But most of all we must leave with hope and in our own small way create peace,” said Sr Mary.
We returned to the beautiful retreat centre in the Beskidy mountains for our final night in Poland. After dinner Fr Greg led us in a wonderful reflection about our experiences that day. We split into small groups and discussed what resonated most with us about our visit to Auschwitz. Some of us had worried that the changes to the tour would dull the emotional impact, but it was the kind of experience that took time to really hit you. By the time we reflected on things, it was evident that we had been affected deeply. How could we not be? Everyone shared their emotions and thoughts honestly and then most groups shared something that stood out from their group discussions. It was a perfect way to allow this experience of witness to wash over us and leave us forever changed.