A Transformed Poland Looks to a Future Without Its Hero

By focusing world attention, the pope leveraged freedom for his Soviet-bloc homeland. Some now expect a lower profile.

By John Daniszewski

Los Angeles Times

April 4, 2005

KRAKOW, Poland — Since the remarkable day in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla was elected head of the Church of Rome, the people of Poland have felt especially blessed, basking in the honor of having produced the first non-Italian pope in 4 1/2 centuries.

Sunday, their first day without John Paul II reigning on the throne of St. Peter, his numbed compatriots mourned his absence and their own sense of loss, looking ahead to what felt to many like an inevitably diminished role for their nation.

Some said it would not matter that the next pope would not be a Pole, because of all that John Paul had achieved during his 26 years as pontiff. But others said the esteem and attention that had attached to Poland because of its most famous son would certainly be missed.

At the time of Wojtyla's selection as pontiff, Poland was little-known to much of the world, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, seemingly abandoned to its fate as a Communist satellite.

Even President Gerald Ford had seemed deluded about whether Poland had fallen under Soviet control at the end of World War II. "I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union," Ford said during a 1976 election debate.

John Paul helped change all that, and Sunday, as if in thanks, hundreds of thousands of people paid him homage at Masses in Krakow and Warsaw and the country's smaller burgs. They instinctively revisited scenes of his most important triumphs for his homeland, writing notes of love and laying candles and flowers in the shapes of hearts and crosses.

On craggy Wawel Hill in Krakow, the ancient seat of Polish kings, bishops and saints, the 18-ton Renaissance-era Sigismund Bell tolled Sunday, a sound rarely heard out of concern for the delicate national icon. Among those who found herself drawn to the spot was Izabela Brucha, a 54-year-old transportation engineer.

Unlike the young families strolling nearby, she could easily recall what Poland was like before the pope.

"As a Pole, I know that this pontificate was a great event in the history of Poland," she said.

"For the generation born in the era of the Polish pope, it is obviously a sudden shock that it could ever be different. We were making all of our advances under his protection. What our young people are able to do and take for granted today — travel everywhere, work abroad, be accepted as members of the European Union — we owe to the great Karol Wojtyla."

The pope's elevation and his first visit to his native country as pontiff in 1979, a pilgrimage that Communist authorities had first resisted and then sought to restrict, focused unprecedented attention on the Polish nation.

The sight of millions of Catholics — workers, intellectuals, even some party members — turning out to welcome their pontiff in a Communist land and cheering his calls to "renew the face of the Earth" was inspiring not only to the Polish people themselves but to the world at large.

"He knew that if God had chosen a 'Slavic pope,' who came from 'a church of silence,' then he would become the voice of that church and of those nations," wrote Father Adam Boniecki, editor of the Catholic intellectual weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, a journal to which the pope himself had sometimes contributed.

That visit shattered the illusion of a monolithic Communist bloc existing in a permanently divided Europe. The subsequent rise of the Solidarity trade union movement, and its nonviolent assumption of political power just 10 years later, seems almost inevitable in retrospect.

Soon after Poland's 1989 political reforms and first free postwar election, other Communist states in Eastern Europe began to fall like dominoes. At the end of that year, the Berlin Wall was breached. Later, Germany was reunited, the Baltic states regained independence, and, finally, the Soviet Union itself dissolved.

"We were able to end the era of divisions, bad systems and great evil," former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who became free Poland's first president, recalled Sunday.

In subsequent trips to Poland, the pontiff periodically redirected the eyes of the world to his native country and its neighbors, and sought to cement their place in a revived, united Europe.

"He believed that in his own country, a great proposition for a divided world was being born," Boniecki said in his essay. "He did not allow the church in Poland to ever doubt this idea."

Watching the return of armies of foreign correspondents to Poland over the weekend, on the occasion of the pope's death, one Warsaw-based television producer said she feared it would be the last time so many people would pay so much attention to Poland. But another visitor to Wawel, Urszyla Kruszka, 31, said she was not worried. "They will come. They will want to see where he lived," she said. "Besides, we are a normal country now."

On a warm spring Sunday, Poles' mourning took many forms.

In John Paul's beloved Tatra Mountains, where he hiked with students as a young parish priest, the mountain rescue corps raised a papal banner with black ribbons atop a metal cross at the summit of one of the country's highest peaks, Mt. Giewont.

In Warsaw, strangers joined hands in churches and on the streets to show they were one family in grief. Across the nation, people spontaneously created memorials and altars of candles and flowers, with handwritten notes from schoolchildren.

"My beloved Holy Father," one little girl, Natalka, wrote on a cut-out heart in Krakow.

In Wadowice, where the pope was born, someone shoved into the gate of his childhood apartment house a note that said, "You are already home." The noon trumpeter's call from Krakow's Mariacki Church was canceled Sunday for the first time in memory.

In the northwestern port of Szczecin, Archbishop Zygmunt Kaminski appealed for the pope to be elevated to sainthood as soon as possible, while elsewhere theater performances and movies were canceled, and many stores were shuttered out of respect.

As dusk fell on the nation's first day without a Polish pope, there were fewer tears, but the outpouring of respect and affection showed little sign of abating.

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Special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka contributed to this report.