Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Grief, Poland Returns to Wawel

A week after a Russian plane crash killed Polish President Lech Kacyzinski, his wife and much of the country's leadership -- 96 people in all -- the official period of mourning ended today with the burial of the conservative leader and his wife in the hallowed spot reserved for the nation's most cherished heroes.

At the close of a second funeral Mass in Krakow and a cortege down the ancient capital's "Royal Route," the late president and his first lady were laid to rest in the crypt of the city's Wawel Cathedral -- a privilege once exclusive to Poland's kings and queens, but since extended to a handful of luminaries of the nation's struggle for independence and subsequent figures of monumental stature.

Given the polarization Lech Kaczynski's Law and Justice party inspired prior to his death at 60, controversy has ensued over the choice of his burial-site. That said, the venue's unique status in Polish life and beyond has been amplified further over recent decades by the link between the Wawel crypt and the country's most beloved product of all: the late Pope John Paul II, whose self-admitted "very special bond" with Wawel Cathedral dated to his boyhood, and of which he wrote in his later years that the 12th century temple "encompasses the whole of Polish history."

In just one facet of his legend that would become inexorably wedded to the narrative of Polish nationalism, Karol Wojtyla celebrated his first Mass in the Wawel crypt on the day after his 1946 ordination, receiving his episcopal ordination and claiming the archbishop's throne in the church atop it over the following two decades, serving as the cathedral's pastor and protector until his 1978 election to the papacy.

Such was the Polish Pope's -- and, indeed, his homeland's -- tie with the place that, on his 2005 death, a surge of chatter suggested (or insisted) that Wojtyla's heart would be brought home to rest at the sacred site. But the speculation quickly proved unfounded, or unheeded.

While Pope Benedict appointed the dean of the College of Cardinals Angelo Sodano as his personal legate to the weekend memorials, wire reports said John Paul's Secretary of State was prevented from attending due to the Icelandic ash clouds which've grounded most European air traffic over the last week.

In Sodano's stead, today's rites were led by Krakow's Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz -- the late pontiff's all-powerful secretary and closest confidant of four decades -- and yesterday's by Warsaw's Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz. (Closer to home, meanwhile, in the Stateside heart of Polonia -- Chicago, home to over a million Poles of birth or descent -- a memorial Mass is being celebrated tonight in Holy Name Cathedral, with Cardinal Francis George slated to preside in choir as his Polski-fluent auxiliary, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, celebrates and preaches.)

Though the aforementioned first Burial Mass for Lech and Maria Kaczynski was celebrated yesterday in the modern capital's St John's Cathedral, a liturgy in suffrage for all 96 casualties of the Katyn crash -- among them, two bishops and four priests -- was likewise held (above) in Warsaw's Pidulski Square... the same spot where, bearing a different name 30 years ago, the Polish Pope offered one of his pontificate's most significant messages:
Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking with all of you, through the great Eucharistic prayer, that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.

We are before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ancient and contemporary history of Poland this tomb has a special basis, a special reason for its existence. In how many places in our native land has that soldier fallen! In how many places in Europe and the world has he cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map! On how many battlefields has that solider given witness to the rights of man, indelibly inscribed in the inviolable rights of the people, by falling for "our freedom and yours"!

"Where are their tombs, O Poland? Where are they not! You know better than anyone—and God knows it in heaven."

The history of the motherland written through the tomb of an Unknown Soldier!

I wish to kneel before this tomb to venerate every seed that falls into the earth and dies and thus bears fruit. It may be the seed of the blood of a soldier shed on the battlefield, or the sacrifice of martyrdom in concentration camps or in prisons. It may be the seed of hard daily toil, with the sweat of one's brow, in the fields, the workshop, the mine, the foundries and the factories. It may be the seed of the love of parents who do not refuse to give life to a new human being and undertake the whole of the task of bringing him up. It may be the seed of creative work in the universities, the higher institutes, the libraries and the places where the national culture is built. It may be the seed of prayer, of service of the sick, the suffering, the abandoned—"all that of which Poland is made".

All that in the hands of the Mother of God—at the foot of the cross on Calvary and in the Upper Room of Pentecost!

All that—the history of the motherland shaped for a thousand years by the succession of the generations (among them the present generation and the coming generation) and by each son and daughter of the motherland, even if they are anonymous and unknown like the Soldier before whose tomb we are now.

All that—including the history of the peoples that have lived with us and among us, such as those who died in their hundreds of thousands within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.

All that I embrace in thought and in my heart during this Eucharist and I include it in this unique most holy Sacrifice of Christ, on Victory Square.

And I cry — I, a son of Polish soil and, now, I, John Paul the Pope — I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on this vigil of Pentecost:

Send down your Spirit!
Send down your Spirit!
And renew the face of the earth.
Of this earth!

PHOTO: Getty(1-3); Reuters(2)