John Paul II’s “beloved Krakow”

Several years ago, Father Raymond de Souza, one of my fellow faculty members at an annual Kraków-based summer seminar on Catholic social doctrine, made a trenchant observation about the city John Paul II used to call “my beloved Kraków.” Kraków, Father de Souza observed, was the city where the twentieth century happened in a singular way.

It had known the joys of national rebirth before being bludgeoned during World War II by five and a half years of a draconian Nazi occupation. The story behind Schindler’s List unfolded in Kraków; industrialized mass murder was pioneered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, an hour’s drive to the west. After the war, to the east of the city, Polish communists built Nowa Huta, the first settlement in Polish history without a church: a grim, socialist-realist steel-milling town where “New Soviet Man” would be manufactured, along with steel. The terrible effects of terrible ideas – the race-madness of Nazism and the political-economic madness of communism – were felt in Krakow for over a half-century.

Yet something else happened in Poland’s ancient cultural capital: the answer to all that awfulness was also given, in visions of the divine mercy radiating from the heart of the Risen Christ experienced by a then-obscure Polish nun, a few years before the long dark night of occupation began. That healing message of divine mercy was then taken to the whole world by a mission-driven man of God who had once walked the frozen streets of the Nazi-occupied city in denims and wooden clogs – and then, four decades later, became the 263rd successor to St. Peter, taking the name John Paul II.

This singular city will be the site of World Youth Day-2016, which means that World Youth Day is coming home. For while these global Catholic festivals of faith and fellowship may have begun formally in 1986, they actually began in the imagination of Pope John Paul II when he was a young priest on Kraków, building a dynamic campus ministry in the darkest years of Stalinist terror. It was then that Father Karol Wojtyła came to the conviction that young people yearned to live lives of heroic virtue, however often their strivings might fail; and it was that conviction that led him to summon the young people of the world to World Youth Days, throughout his epic pontificate.

I’ve tried to explore thse fascinating, providential connections in City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków (Image Books), which introduces readers to the marvels of Kraków through the life of Karol Wojtyła: walking with him, vocationally, as his Cracovian life unfolded step-by-step as student, priest, bishop, and pope. My reflections on the Christian truths embodied in John Paul II’s life of heroic sanctity are then amplified by historical and artistic notes on the city provided by my friend and former colleague, Carrie Gress, the whole package being illustrated by the splendid photographs taken by my son, Stephen Weigel. (In the e-book edition, all the photos are in radiant color.)

The result, I hope, is a guidebook-with-a-difference. City of Saints tells you what the alert pilgrim (at World Youth Day-2016 or any other time) will want to know about the history, architecture, and art of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. But that’s available in many other guidebooks. The “difference” in City of Saints is that the fascinating story of Kraków and the splendors of the city’s fabric are set in the spiritual context of a journey of conversion, in which the reader walks with one of the great Christians of our time through the place that helped make him what he was: a witness to hope, whose hope was founded on a rock-solid faith in Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.

To traverse their city with John Paul II and the many other saints of Kraków is to follow an itinerary of sanctity. And that reminds us that saints – men and women cooperating with God’s grace in their lives – are all around us, if we but see the world through the lens of faith.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.