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John Paul II in His Polish Context

by Paul Wojda and Kenneth Kemp


Twenty-six students, accompanied by course-directors Dr. Paul Wojda (THEO) and Dr. Kenneth Kemp (PHIL), travelled to Poland this January to study the life and thought of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II in his Polish context. This was the third time this course was offered. The first was in January 2010, and the second in January 2012. Another trip is planned for January 2018.

The impetus behind this course is to provide a deeper understanding of how the history, language, literature, and cultures of Poland shaped the philosophy and theology of Karol Wojtyła and how, after his election as Pope in 1978, they continued to shape his long and influential pontificate. Theoretically, one could simply read George Weigel’s massive autobiography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999), and learn much of this for oneself. In fact, large portions of Weigel’s book are on the syllabus! However, no amount of reading can replace the experience this course provides: spending an entire month in John Paul II’s native country, listening, however uncomprehendingly, to his native language being spoken everywhere around you; learning to speak a little Polish oneself; sitting in classrooms at the university where he was a faculty member for more than 25 years—a university that now bears his name: “The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin;” listening to lectures by Polish university professors—some of whom personally knew and/or studied under Karol Wojtyła; visiting various Polish sites crucial to Wojtyła/John Paul II’s own formation as a young student, priest, and eventually Cardinal Archbishop of Kraków; and, not least, enjoying the culinary delights of traditional Polish food (yes, pierogis!).

Unlike many other J-term courses, “John Paul II in his Polish Context” is relatively stationary. That is, a good portion of the month is spent in Lublin, where students attend lectures at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL, for short) and go on site visits in and around the city. However, about six days of the class are spent in Kraków, which is about a five-hour bus ride from Lublin, and the final two days are spent in Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. More on Kraków and Warsaw, below. But firrst, Lublin.

A typical day in Lublin would begin with breakfast at the hotel. (Faculty directors and students lived in a very comfortable hotel just adjacent to the University.) The first “class” of the day, around 8:00 or 8:30, would be elementary Polish language instruction. This would be followed by two, sometimes three lectures, on a range of subjects. Early in the month, the lectures were heavy on the history of Poland, which is long and complex. Later in the month, lectures focus on various aspects of Wojtyła’s/John Paul II’s thought, which can also be complex! Lectures ended around noon each day, at which time the entire group gathered at the University cafeteria for obiad, the traditional mid-day meal. As the main meal of the day, obiad tends to be large: a soup, a main dish entrée, and then dessert. Having such a big meal helped fortify the group for a variety of afternoon site visits. (On days without site visits, students were free to explore Lublin on their own, or—perhaps?—study.)

In addition to basic tours of the city of Lublin and KUL, the most significant site visits around Lublin included the Majdanek concentration camp and the 15th century Italian renaissance city of Zamość. The latter visit emphasized how connected Poland was to broader currents of European cultural and intellectual developments throughout its history. The former visit brought home to students the horror of the Holocaust, and World War II in general.

Kraków provided both students and faculty a bit of a break from the classroom. Most of the excursion consisted of site visits in and around Kraków—the capital of medieval Poland—and free time to explore on one’s own. Kraków is much larger than Lublin, and far more “touristy.” One is as likely to hear English on the street as Polish, in fact. The most significant site-visits around Kraków included trips to the Monastery of Jasna Gora in Częstochowa, home to the famous icon of the “Black Madonna,” and in many ways the “spiritual” capital of Poland; to Wadowice, Karol Wojtyła’s boyhood home (where a splendid new museum has been opened honoring him); and to Auschwitz.

The last two days were spent in Warsaw, which in every respect has become one of the major capitals of Europe, on a par with Berlin or Prague. Our limited time in the city meant that we could not see much beyond the basics: a tour through the old-town and a trip to POLIN: the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

John Paul II is everywhere in Poland. There is hardly a church in this deeply Catholic country that does not have some commemorative statue or marker dedicated to him. Streets have been named after him. And of course, the Catholic University of Lublin changed its name (in 2005, shortly after John Paul II’s death) to honor its most illustrious son. It was something of a surprise, then, to find that the group was at the center of media attention throughout its stay in Poland—and especially in Lublin. Whether radio, television, or newspaper, the questions were usually the same: why have you travelled all the way to Poland to learn about John Paul II? Our answers were also usually the same: to experience the history and culture that played such a large role in shaping the man who became John Paul II.  We also hastened to add: Poland was an extremely hospitable and gracious host!