In a turn of history, Poland is country that will miss German pope the most

Nuns hold Ukrainian and Polish national flags in St. Peter's Square as Pope Francis leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking the square at the Vatican Jan. 8, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

ROME (OSV News) — It was not a given that the Polish people would have a deep love for a pope from Germany, considering the history of the two nations.

According to a Polish state report from 2022, Poland lost 5.2 million citizens in the Second World War, started by Germany, and despite historical moments of reconciliation, political relationships remain cool.

But the Polish nation’s attitude toward the German pontiff was anything but cool. It was a true love affair — and a mutual one.

That love was seen without doubt in Rome for Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral Jan. 5. Hundreds of Polish priests dropped everything and came to Rome to pay tribute to the pope emeritus. Flights to Rome from every major Polish city were sold out by Jan. 2.

"I can tell every Polish diocese was represented," the primate of Poland, Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, told OSV News.

The spokesman of the Polish bishops’ conference, Jesuit Father Leszek Gesiak, confirmed to OSV News that 17 bishops, including six metropolitans, and four Polish cardinals — one of whom was a former personal secretary of St. John Paul II, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz — were concelebrants at the funeral Mass.

Msgr. Slawomir Oder, postulator of St. John Paul II’s sainthood cause, also was there. He couldn’t imagine not having flown to Rome for the occasion.

"The Holy Father was, for me, someone really dear and close," he told OSV News.

Throughout Pope Benedict's pontificate, Msgr. Oder was judicial vicar of the Appellation Tribunal of the Vicariate of Rome, having been named to the post in 2001. He is currently president of the Court of Appeals of the same vicariate.

"Pope Benedict XVI was someone that determined the course of my life, and I will be forever grateful to him," he said.

Much has already been written in past days about the fond relationship between the Polish pope and the German cardinal, but Poles are grateful to Pope Benedict for one particular sign of that friendship — the speedy beatification process of St. John Paul II.

Pope Benedict, following the cries of "Santo subito!" (Sainthood now!), started the beatification process only a month after the Polish pontiff's death April 2, 2005.

He was convinced his predecessor was a saint and encouraged a quick path. Under normal Church rules, five years must pass after a person dies before the procedure for sainthood can even begin. The reigning pope has the authority to waive the five-year waiting period.

Msgr. Oder recalled how, during the beatification Mass on May 1, 2011, he knelt in front of Pope Benedict for the sign of peace. "He lifted me up immediately, hugged and said to me, 'We are grateful and we are happy.' When I was walking away from him, I turned to the masses at St. Peter's Square. I knew he spoke on behalf of the entire Church."

In his third public appearance after resigning as pope, Pope Benedict attended the canonization of St. John Paul II on April 27, 2014.

"When I was walking down from the altar, I spotted a man dressed in white," Msgr. Oder said. "He stood up, embraced me and said, 'You don’t even know how happy I am.’ I know it was a very moving moment for him to see his predecessor’s canonization," Msgr. Oder added.

The German pope’s first pastoral trip was inherited from his predecessor: World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, which already was on St. John Paul’s calendar.

But for the first trip of his own, Pope Benedict chose to go to Poland from May 25-28, 2006.

It was symbolic. He wanted to go to the land of his predecessor. The apostolic trip completely transformed Pope Benedict, according to Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki.

"At the beginning of the papacy, when he was finishing up the Angelus, he was so shy, he would quickly turn back to his apartment," the archbishop, who was the personal secretary of Pope Benedict in the first two years of the papacy, told OSV News.

But it was the apostolic trip to Poland that encouraged Pope Benedict that he was fit for the papacy. "At some point when he was meeting with the youth in Krakow, I saw him change -- his hands were lifted up, he was smiling, encouraging," Archbishop Mokrzycki said.

"I think an important part of the transformation was realizing that John Paul did not attach the youth to himself, but to the papacy," Auxiliary Bishop Artur Wazny of Tarnów, Poland, told OSV News, “and at the beginning of the trip to Poland, Poland Benedict XVI was looking back, thinking that John Paul II is right there.

"At some point he realized he doesn't have to pretend he's John Paul II. He can be himself, and people will love him still — and love him a lot."

"He was grateful to Poles for their faith," said Archbishop Mokrzycki. "When he realized two Polish television stations are still airing the Angelus live every Sunday even though the pope is not Polish, he knew he (was dealing) with a nation deeply rooted in Catholicism, deeply rooted in the Church, and Pope Benedict XVI simply loved it."

The pontiff was convinced he should speak Polish to Polish pilgrims. He didn't know the language at all, so Archbishop Mokrzycki would record phrases on a voice recorder and Pope Benedict would simply repeat them.

According to the Polish Catholic news agency KAI, the new pope spoke to Poles almost 100 times in the first year of his pontificate. The last time he greeted Poles as reigning pontiff was Feb. 27, 2013, at his last general audience.

"Thank you for your presence in Rome in recent years, for common prayer, for all the evidence of closeness, sympathy and memory," the pontiff said, as reported by KAI.

Bishop Wazny told OSV News he attended Pope Benedict's Jan. 5 funeral "to thank him for the fact that he was an associate of truth. He showed us that in today's world to love means to love in truth. And he is for me someone who loves truth not for the truth itself, but to love another human being in truth. And this is what the world needs today."

The most important papal statement Pope Benedict made in Poland was neither written nor spoken. It was walked — at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim.

The infamous motto "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free") is inscribed on the gate at the camp, where 1.1 million people, according to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, perished in gas chambers, due to starvation, hanging, shooting and other forms of inhumane, drastic death during World War II.

Pope Benedict walked underneath the gate in complete silence. Then he spoke next to the "death wall," where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot in the back of the head before their bodies were sent to the crematoriums.

"Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people," Pope Benedict said, referring to his predecessor's June 7, 1979 visit. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict had accompanied John Paul II, along with a group of German bishops.

"I come here today as a son of the German people," Pope Benedict cried out at the wall. "I could not fail to come here." He called his presence there "duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here" and also "duty before God.”

"He could confront a difficult truth in the spirit of the Gospel," Archbishop Polak told OSV News. "This made the Poles aware that we can trust each other in that process."

"He had the courage to confront difficult issues with truth as a roadmap," Msgr. Oder said.

"Looking at the coffin of Pope Benedict XVI, I thought of reconciliation," Archbishop Wojciech said, adding that "today we don't look sincerely" at each other.

"We often fear that this grandeur legacy of reconciliation is under risk to be shattered," he added, pointing to Poland and Germany's often drastically different views on political and social matters, such as support for Ukraine, which Germany is often reluctant to show and which has become a foreign policy priority for Poland.

Archbishop Polak, the Polish primate, stressed that he asked Pope Benedict to help keep the reconciliation process "alive."

"He is not only a German pope loved by Poles, he is the pontiff of the universal Church, and for everything that he's done for the reconciliation of the peoples of the world, he will stay in my memory as a bridge-builder," the prelate told OSV News.



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