Monday, September 6, 2010

In the Footsteps of Pope John Paul II

There is so much to write about the last several days but, as usual, so little time. Wanda and I headed to Warsaw last Friday. On Sunday, we parted ways for a few days and I journeyed to Czestochowa and then Krakow. I took a 6+ hour tour to Auschwitz and Birkenau today. Tomorrow, I am going to venture on my own to Wadowice -- the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.

Well, that's the short version. The long version goes on for pages and hours and is too much for a blog post. But there is one great story that I have to share. Here in Krakow, I am the guest of the Polish Dominicans -- a group of 92 priests and brothers. Some of them have Pier Giorgio as their patron and a small group just recently visited the Frassati Villa in Pollone. Upon my arrival, Brother Michael took me to the priory to show me some areas that are closed to the public this week (for their retreat.) One place was the earliest room where they studied in the 13th century, the refectory, an underground storage area, some spectacular artwork, the prison where one priest was kept for three years! All very cool things to see but not the highlight.

In a certain sense, these Dominicans are where it all began for Pier Giorgio. Thirty-three years ago, on March 27, 1977, the Cardinal of Krakow -- Karol Wojtyla -- attended the opening of an exhibit about Pier Giorgio. The exhibit was in the halls of the Priory in the large common area outside of one entrance to the main church. It was then that Cardinal Wojtyla was so overcome with emotion and encouraged others to go view the exhibit. As I understand it, the Dominicans were having a retreat at the time that focused on the Beatitudes. Accordingly, Cardinal Wojtyla offered this exhortation: "Go and look at these photographs. Behold the man of the eight beatitudes who bears in himself the grace of the Gospel, the Good News, the joy of salvation offered to us by Christ..."

The title stuck and Pier Giorgio became known ever since as the "Man of the Beatitudes."

Last night, I stood in the spot where Pope John Paul II (then Cardinal Wojtyla) was photographed looking at a picture of Pier Giorgio prior to making those remarks. It was a real moment of completeness for me. Perhaps, just perhaps, if Pope John Paul II had not spoken of or promoted Pier Giorgio so much, I might never have known whom he was. A common thread definitely runs through both of their lives. And both of their lives have so profoundly impacted the direction of mine. For those reasons and many more, it cannot be more appropriate for me to be here now and to be so inspired by the inspiration of Pope John Paul II. Setting off for his birthplace tomorrow is a little pilgrimage of gratitude, I suppose. Having so often visited his tomb, it will be nice to see where it all began for him.

On a sad note, I also retraced a few of his footsteps today, as well as those of Pope Benedict, at Auschwitz in Block 11, Cell 18, where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is an intense experience summed up well by Pope Benedict during his remarks in 2006: "Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

Well, it may be a few days before I write again. God-willing, that will be from the Frassati Villa in Pollone where I will rejoin Wanda on Thursday. Looking forward to praying for you there.

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