In 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected John Paul II, the first Polish pope in the history of the Church. His election was shocking. It had been almost 500 years since a non-Italian was elected pope. And no one expected that the pope would be elected from a country ruled by Communists, in which the Church was systematically marginalized and persecuted.
Before his election, John Paul II was the Archbishop of Krakow. A few months into his pontificate, he made a historic visit to Communist-controlled Poland. His visit has been called the “nine days that changed the world.” In a nine-day pilgrimage, John Paul witnessed to the vibrancy and endurance of Catholic faith in a place where radically statist secularism had worked to eradicate the influence of the Church on national politics and culture.
Christianity had come to Poland in 966, with the baptism of Mieszko I, the father of the Polish state. For nearly a millennium, the Polish people had produced saints and missionaries, holy families and holy vocations, in the context of a Christian nation.
But the establishment of Poland as a satellite state of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Second World War inaugurated an era of secular, materialist, and communist indoctrination on the part of party organizers and state officials. As a young priest, Wojtyla was spied on by Communist forces: he hid his pastoral work with youth, and he taught in underground philosophy courses. As Archbishop, he was followed and spied on constantly by Communists, who sought to undermine his work, in order to eradicate faith from Polish culture.
This was the context of John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. He called the Catholics of Poland, especially the young, to build a society rooted in the truths of Jesus Christ—to know that man’s true dignity is found in Christ, not in secular values or powerful ideologies. He told young Poles to be unafraid to “open wide the doors to Christ,” to rebuild their country in the true light of the Gospel.
In short, John Paul’s visit was the beginning of an effort to reanimate the Soviet bloc with the spirit of the Gospel.
It worked. His visit sparked new energies and enthusiasms—convinced people to believe they could change the oppressive Communist regime that ruled them. John Paul sparked faith, and hope, and action. Ten years after his visit, as a direct result of the social movement he sparked, Poland held free elections. Communism fell apart in Poland, and then across the Soviet Union.
We cannot be afraid to open wide the doors to Jesus Christ—the doors of our nation, of our families, and of our hearts. We must believe in the power of Jesus Christ to bring truth, and freedom, and grace to our lives, and our hearts. The witness of John Paul II, and the movement for freedom he inspired, prove to us the power of God’s grace.
This week, millions of young Catholics from around the world will gather in Krakow, the city where Pope St. John Paul II sparked a revolution for freedom in Christ. I will be with them, and with a group of young pilgrims from the Diocese of Lincoln.
We will gather for World Youth Day, a celebration of the Church’s life across the world, and an opportunity to pray together, to grow in unity, and to worship the Lord together. Pope Francis will lead the celebration of World Youth Day. He will, doubtlessly, remind us of what his holy predecessor, Pope John Paul II, accomplished in Poland. And he will doubtlessly call us to bring Christ to the world in the very same way.
Three years ago, at World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, Pope Francis said that “faith is a flame that grows stronger the more it is shared and passed on, so that everyone may know, love and confess Jesus Christ, the Lord of life and history.”
The pope’s wisdom is confirmed by the story of freedom in Poland and the former Eastern bloc. Christ is the lord of life and history. Sharing the light of Christ makes it stronger and more powerful. We are called to share that light. We are called to be unafraid. We are called to bring Christ to the world, and to witness the transforming power of his grace.
I pray that World Youth Day 2016 will be days that change the world. I pray that the witness of Krakow, the witness of Pope Francis, and the witness of the Church around the world will transform the hearts of our pilgrims. And I pray that in Christ, the pilgrims of World Youth Day will make disciples of all nations.
Please join me in that prayer.