Being at World Youth Day 2016 was a blessing on so many levels. Of course the spiritual tone and piety of the young (and young-at-heart) people were moving, and the presence of Pope Francis and his inspiring messages to us participants are the clearest memories of the event. It was a surprise, however, to discover how Krakow’s rich secular and political history captured our attention as well. Coming from a nation that prides itself on revolution from the shackles of royalty (US Election 2016?) I found myself suddenly intrigued with the royal traditions of the Polish kingdoms, with their legends of heroic kings and queens leading the people into history-changing alliances and battles.
Krakow is particularly saturated with Catholic memory and culture. Its cathedral, Wawel, houses the relics of St. Stanislaus, one of the greatest of all martyr-saints. But like many European cathedrals, Wawel also contains the tombs of many Polish kings and queens. This secular presence of the great rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdoms adds much to the collective experience of this Catholic nation. In other words, the Christian heroes of Poland are not only bishops, priests or religious monks and nuns (though there are plenty of those). Its secular rulers play a prominent role in the experience of the country. Among them is perhaps the greatest of Polish kings, Jan III Sobieski, who led the Christian armies to battle and victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and who Henryk Sienkiewicz immortalized in his historical novels of the late 1800s ( I still gotta read those!) I found it particularly moving to visit and pray at the relatively simple tomb of Sobieski, “The king who saved Europe.”
Though World Youth Day is definitely not intended to be a celebration of battles and victories, still those elements of Polish culture are an undeniable feature of the Christian faith of this nation. Below is a clip from a recent movie depicting the Battle of Vienna, which took place on September 11, 1683. In Krakow Pope Francis encouraged us to continue to pray and work for peace through fraternity in this world, and hopefully the military campaigns of the past don’t have to be repeated. Through God’s mercy, may all forms of violence recede farther and farther into the past of all cultures and nations.