The late Pope John Paul II’s hometown in southern Poland is gearing up to fete its most-famous native son this weekend when the Vatican puts him on the path to sainthood.
Wadowice, about 30 miles from Krakow, has enjoyed a boom in tourists over the past 15 years as it’s the birthplace of John Paul. The town will welcome Prime Minister Donald Tusk and other visitors on May 1 to celebrate the late pope’s beatification, the penultimate step to becoming a saint.
“He was always a local patriot,” said Ewa Filipiak, mayor of Wadowice, where John Paul was born almost 91 years ago. “He taught us to love the place we come from as well as those closest to us. Now he’s the face of Wadowice, the reason why people all over the world have heard of us.”
The number of visitors more than doubled from 1996 to 2009, peaking at 431,411 in 2005, the year John Paul died, according to Wadowice’s tourist office. During a 1999 visit, the pope told thousands on the town’s main square about when he and friends went to eat kremowka, or cream cake, after their graduation exams. The story sparked the establishment of new bakeries in Wadowice and a nationwide taste for the town’s traditional pastry, now known in Poland as “the papal cake.”
“Once we had a competition to see who could eat the most kremowka in one go,” said 91-year-old Eugeniusz Mroz, who went to school with the future pope then known as Karol Wojtyla. “Karol ate 10 of them! But he didn’t win; another friend of ours ate 16 pieces.”
The Vatican announced the beatification of John Paul in January after confirming that he cured a French nun from Parkinson’s disease, from which he also suffered. After he’s beatified or declared “blessed,” the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must certify a second miracle for the late pope to be eligible for canonization, or sainthood.
Born on May 18, 1920, Wojtyla wrote poetry, enjoyed kayaking and skiing, and was a keen theater actor. He began university in Krakow in 1938, the year before the Nazis invaded Poland, and decided to become a priest after his father’s death in 1941. His mother had died when he was 9 and an older brother, his only sibling, passed away three years after her.
When Wojtyla was elected in 1978, he became the first pope ever from Poland, and took advantage of his position as the head of the world’s billion Catholics to denounce totalitarianism and promote personal freedom and human rights. Poles credit him for helping hasten the fall of Communist regimes throughout the former Soviet bloc.
“He made us Poles feel strong,” said Father Adam Boniecki, who met John Paul in 1963 and was close to him during the first years of his papacy when he worked for the Vatican newspaper in Rome. “By the time 1989 came around, he was a national icon.”
While Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president after the collapse of communism, and current President Bronislaw Komorowski plan to attend the beatification in Rome, Prime Minister Tusk will spend the day in Wadowice. About 20,000 people will pack the town’s main square, where the Vatican event will be broadcast on a big screen followed by a live concert in the afternoon, Filipiak said.
“Wadowice doesn’t live from John Paul II in the way Assisi or Lourdes do from their holy sons and daughters,” the mayor said. “But we could see that happening in the future. The number of pilgrims has increased since his death, and the sales of souvenirs and other items connected with his life as well.”
Building companies renovating the main square have pledged to take down barriers and cart away rubble to free up the space for the festivities, city council leader Zdzislaw Szczur said. About 35,000 Poles have registered to attend the ceremony in Rome, with as many as 600 extra coaches chartered from Poland, according to Father Piotr Studnicki, a priest who’s coordinating assistance for Polish pilgrims to the Italian capital. Many more Poles may travel there without registering, he said.
With Poles now split over political issues, including the Catholic Church’s role in an increasingly secular society, some people in Wadowice said they hope the beatification brings people back together, like the pope’s death did six years ago.
“After his death, there was this unification, solidarity,” said Bozena Grodecka, a clothes-shop assistant in Wadowice. “Then it all disappeared. But it will come back now, surely.”