Rudi Chelminski
June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

This week Pope John Paul II is scheduled to go home to Poland—the first reigning Pontiff ever to set foot in an Iron Curtain country. To the Polish government his return is a decidedly mixed blessing, but to the country’s 30 million Roman Catholics (90 percent of its population) the visit seems nothing short of a miracle. They are preparing an epic welcome for their national hero. Rudi Chelminski, a Paris correspondent for PEOPLE, reports on it.

The money just came from heaven,” said John Paul’s old catechism teacher, Father Edouard Zacher, as he gazed at the gleaming facade of All Saints Church in Wadowice, the Pope’s birthplace. Steeplejacks with brushes and pots of gray paint were clambering over the onion dome of the church where John Paul II was christened in 1920. The instant renovation was paid for entirely by parishioners. “The people brought in money without our ever asking for it,” Father Zacher said. “That’s the way we do things here.”

In Wadowice—and every other place the Pope will visit on his nine-day sentimental journey—the homecoming is being described as the most significant event in Poland since the war. Already pilgrims have started walking toward the mountain town of Nowy Targ, where the Pontiff will celebrate an outdoor Mass at the airport—the only spot big enough to accommodate the expected one and a half million worshipers. The workweek of June 4 to June 8 will be all but lost to the ailing Polish economy because of absenteeism to watch the Pope in person and on television.

Poland’s firmly atheistic government has tried to remain immune to this epidemic of enthusiasm. “There have been four major disasters for the government this year,” runs a current Warsaw gag. “The bad winter, the spring floods, the explosion of a bank in Warsaw and the Pope’s visit.” Nonetheless, the Communist bureaucracy is realistically making the best of it. The official Polish United Workers’ party, in a face-saving bow to public feeling, announced that it welcomed the papal tour, prompting local wits to offer a new slogan: “Workers of the world, unite—for God’s sake.”

Everywhere the Pope will travel, from Warsaw, where he will say an open-air Mass for 200,000, to Krakow, where he rose from seminarian to archbishop, altars for his Masses and platforms for the press have been built. Churches and shrines have been refurbished and beautified—and rank-and-file Polish Catholics have contributed every zloty of the cost. As a point of national pride, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski rejected all foreign offers of help.

The Polish government has its pride too—and leaders are clearly torn between honoring the papal hero and Marxist dogma. Last month party leaders staged an elaborate “Victory Day” celebration in Warsaw’s Zwyciestwa Square. In part it was intended as a counterweight to the commemoration of the 900th anniversary of the death of Saint Stanislaus, the ostensible reason for the Pope’s visit. In part it was also to measure how many people the square could hold for John Paul’s June 2 Mass there. The government said 100,000—church leaders said twice that number, and brought out charts to prove it. The government retreated, and 200,000 tickets have been printed.

Polish officials have ordered almost every inch of the Pope’s route swept, shined or cleaned. Knowing the whole world will be watching, they issued Krakow street cleaners new uniforms—and had the center lines on major highways repainted by hand. Public squares and buildings have gotten face-lifts in such emotion-charged towns as Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Virgin icon, and Oswiecim, where John Paul will say a solemn Mass at the site of the infamous Auschwitz death camp. The secret police are said to have been alerted to prevent undesirables from slipping into the country along with the press, and the government has made a surprise decision to seal its borders with Communist neighbors for the duration of the Pope’s visit.

The government will not bear the cost of all these precautions and preparations alone, to be sure. Officials have jacked up the price of scarce hotel rooms for the 1,200 journalists on the trip to $90 a night—and taken over almost every room in the country, displacing, among others, some 2,000 Americans who had booked tours to Krakow. The government announced its intention to levy a $350 tax on every visiting journalist but rescinded the order in the face of international protest.

Some private citizens, in the capitalist spirit, will rent standing room on their balconies overlooking the Pope’s route—for up to $100. The price is a measure of the affection millions of Poles feel as they await the Holy Father. As one agnostic schoolteacher in Warsaw put it: “I don’t know whether I believe in God, but I do believe in the Pope.”

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