Every Stone and Brick is Dear to Me

City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków

by George Weigel with Carrie Gress and Stephen Weigel
2015 Image, Crown Publishing Group, 336 pages, $15.00
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Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a close collaborator of Saint John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła) for over twenty years, recently summarized John Paul’s courage and faith. “He did not seek applause, nor did he look around anxiously, wondering how his decisions would be received. He acted on the basis of faith and his insight, and was willing even to suffer blows.”1 The cultural, historical, religious, and architectural milieu in Kraków of the early twentieth century, with its experiences of freedom and oppression, taught John Paul that the Church must work “not in a political way, but by awakening in men, through faith, the forces of genuine liberation.” In the words of John Paul II, this truth meant recognizing that “man cannot live without love . . . his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love . . . if he does not participate intimately in it.”2

In this pilgrim’s guide to Kraków, co-authors George Weigel (reflections), Carrie Gress (historical notes), and Stephen Weigel (photography) work together to introduce a city that, through John Paul II, has come to be inextricably linked to the life of the universal Church. First, in Wojtyła’s “student pathways,” we meet unsung heroes whose role in Wojtyła’s life was key to his future vocation. These include the stalwart Prince Adam Cardinal Sapieha, who ran an underground seminary and who boldly offered stale bread at a dinner reception for Nazi governor Hans Frank as an expression of solidarity with his oppressed people, and the tailor-mystic Jan Tyranowski, who introduced Wojtyła to figures such as Saint John of the Cross. Next, in his “priestly pathways,” we follow the young Father Wojtyła through his pastoral accompaniment of young people and married couples, such as Servant of God Jerzy Ciesielski, a married engineer whose conversations with Wojtyła led to the book Love and Responsibility and John Paul II’s theology of the body.

On pilgrimage with the young Bishop Wojtyła (who was consecrated at age thirty-eight), we encounter his Christian humanism in the face of Marxist ideology and come to see that his battles with state officials over the building of churches were really but a subset of the battle of the human condition: to make of our hearts and souls a fitting dwelling for the Lord. Finally, in his papal return to Poland, we encounter Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Faustyna Kowalska, whose sacrificial love and confidence in Divine Mercy offer hope during the Second World War; we end with a foray into the Polish mountains to recall that the essence of Christian life is to live radically converted Eucharistic lives.

Weigel does not disappoint by including key texts, such as the concluding homily from the 1979 papal pilgrimage to Poland, a nine-day journey which “changed the world” by reminding the Polish nation of its spiritual, cultural, and historical patrimony, leading to the Solidarity movement and the fall of European communism. “And so, before I leave you, I wish to give one more look to Kraków, this Kraków in which every stone and every brick is dear to me. . . . I beg you once again to accept that whole of the spiritual legacy that goes by the name of ‘Poland,’ with the faith, hope, and charity that Christ poured into us . . . I beg you, never to lose truth, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged.”

These stones and bricks of Kraków, from its Romanesque and medieval churches to its Baroque cloisters—all expressions of its Catholic culture, with overflowing churches and a preponderance of priests and religious (the archdiocese has one hundred more parishes than the Diocese of Rome)—justly merited the observation by Giovanni Paolo Murante in 1596 that “if there were no Rome, Kraków would be Rome.” This saying surely holds true over four hundred years later. As the Church in western Europe turns Gothic churches into museums or sells Baroque chapels for brew pubs (or worse), anybody visiting Kraków can see that the renovated brick towers of Saint Mary’s Basilica or Wawel Castle, deliberately neglected by the communist regime, are now witnesses to a new springtime of the faith.

The shrines, monuments, and civic spaces that formed Wojtyła (and have since been transformed by him) have witnessed the martyrdoms of defenders of religious freedom, from Saint Stanisław in ancient times to steel mill workers in modern times; they have seen processions in honor of the saints (and led by saints) and military parades of occupying thugs; they have faced deterioration from soot and acid rain from communist industry. Yet, in the newly renovated Kraków, they persist in expressing the deep faith and commitment to freedom that prepared Wojtyła for the Chair of Peter in a way that only God in His Providence could have envisioned.

In this guide we reflect upon grace and redemption, human dignity and freedom, sin and mercy, culture and faith, friendship and communion, and are left convinced that, for Wojtyła, as for us, the only way to understand who we are is to understand the places we have come from; it is to see that our place within history is a subset of Christ’s work in salvation history, leading us one day from our homes, cities, and churches to the Father’s house, the eternal City of God where Saint John Paul now sings the praises of the Holy Trinity.