Stephen Grainger journeys once more behind the Iron Curtain

My second trip of the year behind what was once known as the Iron Curtain coincided with the twenty-eighth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at which he demanded: ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’

Fr Simon, our guide at the monastery of Jasna G6ra – where the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa is to be found – reminded us that it was a combination of Our Lady, St John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher who helped the Solidarity movement on their journey to freedom in Poland. It was moving and humbling to hear about the struggle of people under the oppression and tyranny of Communism and how they sought to free themselves from those shackles. Modern Polish history is peppered with heroes who defended the people and their faith.

Our guide reminded us that the icon of Our Lady at Jasna G6ra is traditionally believed to have been written by St Luke himself. Fr Simon’s view was that the icon was written by someone inspired by St Luke’s Gospel: with Our Lady placed at the centre of our lives. Our Lady was at the centre of the life of St John Paul, and next to the icon pilgrims can see the fascia that he was wearing when he was shot in St Peter’s Square in 1981.

Poland is full of relics and sites associated with St John Paul, and one cannot help but be continually moved by this holy man of God whose message of love and service captured the mind of the whole world. Fr Simon’s parting shot to us was that not only had he shown St Teresa of Calcutta around the shrine, but also 38 ambassadors and heads of states. If he told them half of what he told us they cannot have failed to be impressed.

Krakow itself is a wonderful inspiring city, full of beautiful churches and shrines. Midweek it is also rather peaceful; but once Friday comes there is a steady trickle of stag parties and hen nights in the main square. The locals look on with a mixture of despair and disdain; I was simply embarrassed! Our guide around the churches commented at the end of our tour that he hadn’t believed that there could be Catholic pilgrims from England coming to Krakow, which is a sad reflection on how our neighbours view us.

A trip to this part of Poland does, I think, require a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau: because in order to defeat evil we have to look it in the face. A visit to the two Auschwitz camps certainly forces one to do that. The long tour of nearly two and a half hours left me shocked and disorientated, and there were moments when I felt as if I was in a nightmare and could not wake up. The warm beautiful weather seemed to heighten the sense of shock and disbelief as we moved from building to building looking at the horrific images of what humanity is capable of. Leaving the camps, you cannot help but rededicate yourself to seeking for peace and trying in your own small way to stand up to the evil that plagues our world to this day.

Close to the centre of Krakow is the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, where St Faustina had her vision of Our Lord. The Shrine is a mixture of the old and new, but is very beautiful: although not everyone will feel that about the new basilica. Krak6w offers one a sense of the need of healing, the need of divine love. In a recent Church Times article a priest derided and criticized devotion to the Divine Mercy. I rather get the impression that he has never made the pilgrimage to the Shrine, and perhaps I doubt he ever will. Were he to do so he would find there people, young and old, united in prayer and rejoicing in the mercy of God. And on the Tuesday morning when I visited it wasn’t just a small handful of pilgrims but hundreds: all seeking the love of God. That is something to be cherished and something to be thankful for.

The artistic highlight of Krak6w is the C15th altarpiece in St Mary’s Basilica: the figures depicting the life of Our Lord and Our Lady are breathtaking. The hands of Our Lady in the main scene of her Dormition capture her beauty; but also the hard and sorrowful life she lived. After seeing the altarpiece, it is best to retire to the restaurant on the top of the Cloth Market to take in the exterior of the basilica while sipping Bellinis and enjoying some Polish cake. ND