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Pope John Paul II's 1997 Visit

Saturday 7 June 1997

I just returned from seeing the pope. It's not a thing I ever thought I'd be writing. But I did indeed get to see the pope today in Ludzmierz. I got a call around 12:15 this afternoon from Pan Kowalczyk and he asked me if I was still interested in going. I said I was, so he asked me if I still wanted to wear traditional dress. Thinking I had no choice, I said, "Chyba," (I guess)and he told me to come by his house and pick them up. I walked over to his house and had to try on the clothes. The pants were all wool and incredibly itchy. I thought it was going to be a chaff-fest, but on the way home I realized I could just wear long underwear and have a sweat-fest instead.

I went with the mayor, his wife, Agnieszka, and some lady I've seen before but I am not sure who she is. I had an hour between the time I picked up my clothes and the time I was to meet the mayor, so I inhaled some lunch and threw on the clothes.

The mayor being just that--the major--we had great tickets. We were able to park within sight of the church (as opposed to several kilometers away) and we sat in the front, right section. Actually my ticket was for section A1, but the mayor flashed them all together with his on top and we went in with no trouble. We were no more than thirty-five meters away from the podium and altar.

The whole ceremony was outside. There was a large pavilion for the pope and priests and then the people were stretched for several hundred meters along the Czarny Dunejec river. Many people held up banners, and almost everyone had a little yellow and white flag which they waved frantically at certain points.

The Queen of PodhaleFirst there was a great ceremony at which a high-ranking priest (possibly the current archbishop of Kraków) spoke and the Queen of Podhale icon was brought in and placed on a pedistal in the middle of the pavilion. Four men in góralski clothes brought in the golden statue of Mary holding Jesus as an infant. In her right hand was a scepter. Charles told me that when Karol Wojtyla was still the archbishop of Kraków he made a visit to Ludzmierz and was part of the processional carrying in the Queen of Podhale when suddenly the scepter fell out of her hand and he caught it before it hit the ground. People took this as a sign that he was going to be pope. Of course it's easy to say that after the fact.

Next there was a mass, so that meant a lot of standing, kneeling, sitting, kneeling, standing. I sat beside Agnieszka and she told me what to do. The front few rows were reserved for priests, and when it came time to share the host, they took their little urns of saltines and gave them to whomever in the audience wanted to partake. There was a lot of chanting and prayer as usual, but it was interspersed with singing and music.

Jan Pawel IIThe pope arrived about fifteen minutes late. Wearing his customary white dress, he entered in his customary bullet-proof glass enclosed car, waving at those who could see him. First he went into a small house that was for those who made pilgramages to see the Queen of Podhale. Afterward he got back into his protected car and was driven out of sight. Within minutes he appeared on the pavilion. I must say that the people didn't go as crazy as I was expecting, but there was a great deal of applause and almost everyone was chanting, "Ty jestes Piotrem! Ty jestes Piotrem!" (You are Peter!) He waved and made a few signs of the cross, then went and bowed before the Queen with two other priests flanking him. Someone came and put a red cape over him as he prayed silently, then he began the Hail Mary. He would say something in Latin, then the crowd would respond, "Ave Maria, mater Dei . . ." and then he would switch to Polish and the crowd responded, "swieta Maria, matka Boza . . ." I couldn't discern exactly what they were saying, but between the two langauges I pieced together something like, "Holy Mary, mother of God, have mercy on us in our time of need." Perhaps I'm totally wrong.

I was surprised when I heard the pope speak. He mumbled almost inconherently. Of course I don't know Latin and my Polish is still weak, but I couldn't discern one word from the other. He sounded so tired, as if it was all he could do to move his mouth and tongue in order to speak. He seemed to gain some energy as he went along--at least he began speaking more clearly.

After about thirty minutes of doing Hail Marys, the pope spoke for about ten minutes. I couldn't understand much of what he said at all. I caught a word here and there, but not enough to piece the speech together. I did catch something like, "The word doesn't know. The world doesn't understand. But the world needs . . ." and I lost it there. I guess he went on to say that the world needs God, but he didn't use any vocabularly familiar to me. At this point he went and sat in a huge chair while several people came in pairs and bowed before him, giving him gifts while he blessed them.

The famed Pope-mobile Then he stood and left. That was it. He got back into his protected car and rode back to the pilgrams' house, then back out to his helecopter and he was gone. We were there from a little after two until about eight, but it didn't seem that long at all. And the actual presence of the pope seemed incredibly short.


The whole thing was a bit like a concert. There were officials making sure that everyone went to the correct sections. There was the pre-performance energy. There was an opening act. There was the post-performance chaos. And ridiculously priced souvenirs . . .

I sat next to Agnieszka and we actually talked quite a bit. I'm able to relax around her more than I can with many people in second class. We have a similar sense of humor I believe, and respect each other as individuals. I know she tries hard to be different, and I don't frown upon that as a teacher or just-plain-old-person. I made a lot of jokes about the pope and she actually laughed at them. "What do you think he's doing now? I'll bet he's probably getting in one last smoke. What kind of cigarettes do you think the pope smokes? Marlboro? Nah--I'd say he's a Lucky Strikes man, no filter."