How will Poland honour its most noble son?

  • August 24, 2011

KRAKOW, Poland - The local Church here takes great pride in her saints and in the 20th century no city produced more important ones. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe studied here and died at Auschwitz, part of the archdiocese of Krakow. Sr. Faustina Kowalska’s convent was here, and the Divine Mercy devotion began here. The summer of 2011 has added Blessed John Paul II to the honour roll, and every single parish, shrine and souvenir stand is bedecked with images celebrating Krakow’s most noble son.

At the great Divine Mercy shrine here — the enormous basilica consecrated by Blessed John Paul himself in 2002 — the current archbishop of Krakow and John Paul’s lifetime secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, is building an enormous spiritual, cultural and intellectual centre called the Pope John Paul II “Be Not Afraid” Centre. It is a massive undertaking and will serve as the largest monument to the Polish pope in his native land.

For a Canadian visitor to Krakow, it is impressive to see the love the city has for her former bishop. And it is clear that Cardinal Dziwisz understands his mission to be that of securing the legacy of the great man that he served in life, and continues to serve in death.

How ought the memory of Blessed John Paul II be best served, especially in his native Poland?

“There are 10,000 parishes in Poland,” one of my young Polish friends told me. “Should there be 10,000 John Paul monuments — statues, sculptures, shrines?”

This is not the question of a detractor — the young man works for an institute devoted to studying the late Holy Father’s work. It is not a question of setting the figure of Blessed John Paul aside, consigning him to history, but rather of imagining how the pastoral approach of the dominant figure of the 20th century can be applied in the 21st.

When Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect of the City of London, died, he was buried in his greatest work, St. Paul’s Cathedral. His son composed the epitaph for his grave: Si monumentum requiris circumspice (“if you seek his monument, look around you”). John Paul’s monument is a free Poland itself. His monument was on display last week in Madrid at World Youth Day. His monument is a Church more confident, engaged in the arduous task of the new evangelization.

The challenge for Poles is how to bring that new evangelization to Poland, a free country now for more than 20 years. Compared to many other countries, Polish culture has not suffered the acids of secularism, driving religion to the margins of public life. Yet Poland is not immune from that, and the Church needs to prepare herself for a present and future that will not look like the past.

Deeply Catholic countries — Italy, Spain, Ireland, and in Canada, Quebec — develop over time a thick Catholic culture, replete with all the proper institutions of a healthy culture: parishes, fraternal associations, social welfare agencies, scouting and guiding clubs for youth, schools, universities, hospitals, popular newspapers and magazines, scholarly journals, theatre troupes, art galleries. All of this becomes a massive operation that requires no little skill and manpower simply to run. Consequently, the challenge for the Church becomes one of management, organization and maintenance. It is a small step from there to a bureaucratic Church which manages the culture, as opposed to an evangelical Church which forms it.

During the period of Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland, the Church did not have the bureaucratic option. By necessity she was forced to be creative in culture formation, precisely because her proper institutions were impeded by the totalitarian state. Twenty years on, the bureaucratic/managerial temptation is a real one.

That’s why monument building is a delicate matter. If the monument simply preserves the past, it indicates a desire to maintain what already exists. If the monument seeks to shape the future, then it is animated by an evangelical spirit.

A few months before John Paul was beatified, our own Brother André was canonized. Few saints were ever so popular in their own time as was Brother André — the million people who filled the streets of Montreal for his funeral were evidence of that. And few have such a great monument as the Oratory on Mount Royal. But it points more to what used to be, rather than what is now.

If you seek a monument, what does one see? Monuments can be gravestones, marking the past, or guideposts, pointing to the future. Blessed John Paul is going to have his monuments in Poland, but what kind will they be?

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)


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