On this day in 1920, Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in Wadowice, Poland. Pictured is me and my friend Claire eating the pope’s favourite cake, kremówka, in his hometown.
I just love this section titled “Son of Freedom” from George Weigel’s masterful biography of John Paul II called Witness to Hope.
The Second Polish Republic, the Poland in which Karol Wojtyła grew up, was born at the end of World War I amid immense difficulties. The new state had no internationally recognized boundaries. Seven different currencies circulated in the territory that would eventually settle down as “Poland,” and five legal systems were in play. Its industry had been destroyed; half the rolling stock, bridges, and other infrastructure of modern transportation had gone up in smoke during the war. By 1918, half of Poland’s agricultural land was uncultivated and a third of the livestock had been stolen by the armies that had fought across the Vistula basin. Influenza was rampant, and starvation loomed until relief shipments arrived from the United States. Few Poles had any experience of operating a modern government. Poland’s commitment to the priority of the human spirit in history was severely tested in the new country’s first months of independence.
Yet for all these difficulties, “Poland” was a reality, and the Poles had changed the course of world history by repelling the Red Army’s westward thrust. It was thus into a free Poland, beset by problems but hopeful about its independent future, that Karol Józef Wojtyła was born on May 18, 1920.
It’s such a cool point that he was born in this window of freedom, of independence, of hope – even of Poland getting to be Poland. And, of course, Wojtyła was only in his early twenties when Nazi Germans and then the Soviets invaded Poland during September of 1939.
All throughout his life, Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II, would champion a proper understanding of the human person – exposing the equally dehumanizing ideologies of fascism and communism and exhorting people around the world to “Be Not Afraid.” The liberation of not only a continent, but of many other parts of the world, too, and – furthermore – of millions of hearts and minds – all began in a small town called Wadowice.
I’m so happy that I got to spend time in his childhood home, in the church in which he received the sacraments of initiation, and at the cafe that continues to serve his very favourite Polish cake.
On this hundredth anniversary of his birth, how could I not recall the words of the Polish birthday song – Sto lat, sto lat…!