I have been in Poland since last Wednesday. After spending three days in Warsaw, I came down here to Krakow, which is my base camp until Thursday when I fly back to Rome.
Right now I have just returned from a trip to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau and, predictably, am in a very somber frame of mind. I thought long and hard about going to those two adjoining camps. Finally, I decided to go and remind myself about the evil of which we human beings are capable.
I really don’t want to say much about the trip to the camps. What happened there was so evil that it’s beyond the power of language to express, and any attempt to do so probably diminishes that evil. There was, however, at least one sign of grace at Auschwitz: the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a condemned prisoner, was executed after days of starvation.
The first thing I had to do here in Poland was to let go of the drab, stereotypical images I have always had of large Eastern European cities, primarily because of their recent communist past. Warsaw and Krakow are anything but drab. They are thriving metropolises. What I found fascinating about Warsaw is that ninety-six per cent of the buildings in the center city were destroyed in World War II, but have been rebuilt, often from scratch, so that, to the naked eye, they look just like the buildings that no longer exist. They sure fooled me.
Krakow, with its almost perfectly preserved Old City, is just a wonderful place. There is so much to see here and so little time to do it. I took a four hour walking tour of the Old City yesterday, so I have a good idea of how I want to use the time I will have here on Wednesday. Blessed John Paul II was Cardinal-Archbishop here before he was elected pope and his memory, of course, dominates the city. If I had an another day to spend in Poland, I would go to Wadowice, a suburb of Krakow, where he was born and grew up and visit some of the places here that are closely associated with him, e.g., St. Florian’s Church, his first assignment after ordination, and the seminary where he taught. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the time to would like to have.
Wandering around Krakow Sunday, I deliberately popped into several churches to see what’s going on. They weren’t just packed. They had people standing all over the place and, unless my eyes deceived me, they were praying, really praying. God bless the Poles!
Tuesday before I left Rome, we had a tour of the Vatican Gardens. That was the farthest inside the Vatican I have ever been. The Gardens include just about everything behind St. Peter’s Basilica and the adjoining buildings. It’s a beautiful little city back there: government offices (even a court house), a railway station (now used only to bring in supplies), a helipad, a waterfall and, of course, shrines and grottos. My only regret is that we were not given the option of a walking tour and had to go by bus. Only those within inside connections are allowed to walk around the Gardens. Understandably, the Vatican police (different from the Swiss Guards) do not want just anybody wandering around back there.
Tomorrow I am I am going to Czestochowa to see the Monastery of Jasna Gora, the home of the Black Madonna, who saved Poland from a Swedish invasion in 1655, and the place that many Poles consider the spirituaI capital of their country.
I will return to Rome Thursday for a farewell banquet on Friday and then Saturday fly to Thessaloniki and get ready for the last leg of this excellent adventure: admission to The Most Holy Mount Athos.