The Night Karol Died
By Cameron Hewitt, co-author of Rick Steves' Best of Eastern Europe
|Huge images of the beloved Karol grace Kraków's buildings.|
"How are things going these days?" I asked as I checked into my Kraków hotel.
"Pretty busy, tonight," the manager said. "Since the Pope isn't doing too well. As soon as he got sick, the international press called and booked up all our rooms."
Only then did it dawn on me that I was in the Pope's adopted hometown — the town where he attended university and served as an archbishop — on the night he was supposed to take his final breath.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of Pope John Paul II to the Polish people. Not only because they're the most ardently Catholic nation in Europe, if not the world. And not only because John Paul II was the first Polish Pope. But, most importantly, because John Paul II was called to the papacy at a time when the Poles faced their darkest hour. Every Pole remembers his comforting refrain, "Nie lękajcie się" — "Have no fear."
Imagine you're Polish in the 1970s. Your country was devastated by World War II, and has been in under an oppressive regime ever since. Food shortages are epidemic. Lines stretch around the block even to buy a measly scrap of bread. You're not allowed to speak your mind, you're not allowed to travel, and — it seems — you're not allowed even to hope.
Then someone who speaks your language — someone you've admired your entire life, and one of the only people you've seen successfully stand up to the regime — is elected to the highest ecclesiastical office in the world. A Pole like you is the leader of a billion Christians. He makes you believe that the impossible can happen. He says to you again and again: "Nie lękajcie się." And you begin to believe it.
John Paul II was the one who got the Poles through the grim communist days, and inspired them to rise up. Without Jan Paweł II — or Karol Wojtyła, as his countrymen still think of him — there might not have been a Solidarity. There might not have been an end to communism.
A few days ago, I was talking to my friend in Warsaw. Just hours before the Pope's illness was first reported, she was telling me that a new, highly anticipated film about him — called Karol — was due to premiere this weekend in Poland. "You know," I said, "A lot of people around the world seem to think he should retire. It seems almost inhumane for someone in such poor health to keep going like this. Do people in Poland think this, too?"
|Even 48 hours after his death, thousands of the Pope's countrymen continue to gather under the window where they last saw him face to face.|
"Oh, no," she said. "To us, he is a wonderful person. We want to see him continue as Pope as long as possible. He has been such a groundbreaking figure. He has done so much for Poland and for the world. He is simply the greatest Pole." Her eyes filled with tears. "And yet, he is like family."
Tonight in Kraków, I drop my backpack on the floor and turn on the TV to get an update. The three national Polish TV networks are each running different programs on the Pope. Channel 1 shows a robust, younger Pope hiking in the Polish Tatras near Zakopane. The words flash on the bottom of the screen: Nie lękajcie się. On Channel 2, a reporter speaks in hushed tones in front of the Vatican. Channel 3 pictures the Pope kneeling in prayer. BBC is in on the act, too, as are the German, French, Spanish, and Italian stations. The Pope in Mexico. The Pope in the Philippines. The Pope in Poland. By the time I get to CNN, I'm about Poped out.
Then CNN gets a call from their man in the field, who reports that he's standing in front of the window of the Archbishop's Mansion where the Pope always stays when he returns home to Kraków. My ears perk up, and I realize that the Pope's window is just two blocks from my hotel.
I put my shoes on and trudge to the Archbishop's Mansion. As I approach the mansion, I see news trucks. Then bright lights. And then, twinkling in the distance, I begin to make out hundreds of votive candles.
Hundreds — no, thousands — of Krakovians are here for the vigil. Every last one of them is staring intently at the window that Karol greeted them from each time he came home. During his most recent visit, in 2002, they suspected it might be the last. After he went to bed, Karol's countrymen filled this street and insistently called to him until he came to this window... so they could see him one more time.
Tonight a large black crucifix with a golden Jesus has been placed in the window. The door below the window is flanked by the yellow-and-white flags of the Vatican. Candles are everywhere. On the lawn, the faithful have laid out the candles in the shape of a cross.
Even though it's Friday night in the middle of Poland's liveliest city, it's completely silent. I've never seen so many people be so quiet. I look around and realize how many teenagers and twentysomethings are here — they almost outnumber the older folks. Poles of all ages and walks of life have come to pray, to lend their support, and to give thanks.
Every ten minutes, somebody breaks out into an impromptu hymn, and everyone joins in, singing weakly. Then silence falls again.
The next morning, I wake up and turn on the TV to hear the news. The Pope lives on. I pass by the Pope's window again on my way into the Old Town, and there are more people than the night before. A church service is going on in St. Francis' Basilica, across the street, which was the Pope's home church when he was archbishop. The Mass is being broadcast on loudspeakers outside, and thousands stand attentively. But nobody's looking at the church — they're all looking at the window. A red cloth has been draped over the crucifix. I stand with the faithful for a few minutes, guessing from the cadence and the smattering of Polish words I recognize that they're praying the Hail Mary.
|In honor of the Pope, all of Poland twinkles with candles.|
Later that day, I'm checking out some new hotels for my guidebook. At one hotel, the desk clerk is showing me some rooms. We walk by an open door to a hotel room, and I see the manager standing there, watching a Vatican news conference on TV, hanging on every word. I walk outside and cross a street near the Pope's window. I realize that they've actually closed the street now, re-routing the tram that usually clatters along here — making more room for the ever-growing crowd to pay their respects.
As the day goes on, news trickles from the Vatican...vagueness, mild optimism. I begin to wonder if he might hang on for a while, after all.
That night, after dinner, I'm on my way to my hotel. In the distance, I see flickering candles coming from the Pope's window. I'm in a bustling neighborhood where people are enjoying their Saturday night — laughing, eating kebabs, listening to loud music. But as I walk towards the Pope's window, the background chatter fades out — like somebody turning down the volume knob. By the time I get to the back row of the crowd, it's completely silent.
I can't get very close to the window. The crowd is now completely filling the street, and clogging side-streets, too. Later reports would number the crowd at about 10,000. A Mass seems to be going on inside the church, again broadcast by loudspeakers. I get swept up in the haunting harmony of the singing, and notice the people around me are singing along. More a chant than a hymn, the same few phrases are repeated again and again. After a few rounds, I begin to pick out those inspiring words: Nie lękajcie się.
The music stops. The priest says something in Polish. And the thousands and thousands of Poles all around me simultaneously drop to their knees. Eyes fill with tears. Women fish tissues out of their purses. A wave of sniffling moves across the crowd. In the distance, I hear someone wailing. And I understand: The Pope has died.
We kneel in silence for several long minutes. The priest's voice begins on the loudspeaker, and the Poles around me begin to murmur, too. It's the Hail Mary — over and over and over again. I glance around me. There's not a dry eye anywhere. Teenagers and retirees kneel side-by-side, tears rolling down their cheeks. Boyfriends comfort their sobbing girlfriends. Big, tough guys with Lech Walesa moustaches weep openly.
Over the sound of the praying, church bells ring from every direction. Kraków, a city of churches, is paying its respects.
But quickly, the Krakovians' private moment of mourning is over. The international press shows up, turning their cameras on the kneeling Poles, tiptoeing into the crowd to get the best shot. Nobody seems to notice.
After several rounds of Hail Mary, everyone stands up. Music plays, and people around me start singing hymns. Black bands are attached to the Vatican flags under the window. More cameramen arrive, weaving through the crowd, their cameras bobbing above everyone's heads. The crowd begins to disperse, as people from the front shuffle to the back. As people pass me, I notice that their eyes are all red. I look behind me and realize that I'm no longer in the back row — the crowd now extends at least a block behind me.
After several more minutes, I work my way through the crowd and head home. The roads are a traffic jam — some people are leaving the Pope's window, while others are just arriving. The crowd won't get much smaller over the next several days. Just up the street is Wawel Cathedral, Poland's most important church. Its bells toll mournfully through the cool Polish night.