On October 16, 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope and assumed the name of Pope John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years and the first Polish Pope in history. In 1978 few if anyone realised they were seeing the beginning of a twenty-six year long papacy that was to transform the Church, inspire a revolution leading to the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the establishment of dialogue between Christians and Jews. This boy from a small town of Wadowice, southern Poland, gripped the hearts of millions of people around the world.
Grief stricken faithful gathered in front of the house in Wadowice, southern Poland, where the Pope was born, to pay tribute to their beloved Pontiff with wreaths, flowers and song, after his death on April 2, 2005. These young people singing the Pope's favorite song, "The Boat", knew him only as the Holy Father. But to many an elderly resident of Wadowice, Pope John Paul II was Karol Wojtyla, affectionately called "Lolek". Wadowice before the war was a tiny town with a mixed Polish-Jewish population. Among his friends were also Jews, with whom Lolek played football. A tall boy, he was an ideal goalie. Piotr Pazinski from the Jewish monthly Midrash, says that as a boy the future Pope made many Jewish friends:
"There was a Jewish soccer team, there was Jewish and Polish soccer teams in this town. So, he picked the Jewish one as a mark that he opposed anti-Semitism even as a child."
It was at that time, surely, that the seeds of the Pope's future teachings on dialogue between Christians and Jews were sown, Piotr Pazinski explains:
"He viewed many Jews not as the people of Israel or those responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ but as neighbours. And because of this, probably this Polish pope was the best person, was the best head of the Catholic Church who started this gigantic and still unfinished process of reconciliation."
It is the role of the priests now to bring this message of the Pope to the grassroots in a country where anti-Semitism is far from dead. Marek Nowak, a Dominican priest, member of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews:
"The most important message for us, for the Catholics, is how we should look at the Jews. The Jews are our brothers - elder brothers."
Pope John Paul II spent 40 years of his life in the historic city of Krakow. Roza Thun of the Schumann Foundation was among the many young people who were fortunate to become the then Bishop Karol Wojtyla's friends. On the phone from Krakow, she remembers the future Pope as a person always ready to listen to other people:
"Many people say he was the pope of the younger generation. In the 1970's I was also the younger generation. And we always knew that he was there and it was right what we are doing when we were printing underground newspapers that were illegal at that time. We tried to learn the history of Poland - the recent history, to understand the system that dominated us. And we organized courses - the so-called flying university - first in the flats. But the police would come and arrest us, and we couldn't meet. Bishop Wojtyla then decided to open the church for us."
The message of Pope John Paul II, who preached a civilization of love, will remain with us. So will the memory of how he told Poles back in 1979, on his first visit to Poland as Pope - "have no fear", which was understood as a call to oppose communism. Since then the communist system collapsed, Poland embraced democracy, joining NATO and the European Union. It was a process in which the Pope's inspiration was crucial.
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