VOL 124 NO. 15
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Diocesan priests share their memories of and affection for John Paul II
The Catholic Church created shockwaves, both secular and religious, when it elected a Polish pope in 1978.
Long the province of Italian cardinals, the pontificate was now occupied by a native of the part of the world struggling under the boot of communism. To have a Pole elected pope was of tremendous importance to the fellow countrymen of Karol Jozef Wojtyla.
Father Gregory Golyzniak of St. John the Baptist in Rome was eight and living in his hometown of Muszyna in Poland when the pope was first elected. “I remember my parents were so happy,” he said. “There was great joy.”
Not only were Polish Catholics elated to have one of their own in the Vatican, Father Golyzniak stressed that the people of Poland envisioned the newly elected pope as an agent against communism.
“They connected him with the hope of a free Poland,” Father Golyzniak said.
The pope had long been a champion of the people of Poland in his constant and steady call for the end of communism in his native country before he became Pope John Paul II.
“There was tremendous joy when he was elected,” said Father Andrew Baranski, assistant chancellor to Bishop James Moynihan. “When the news hit it was disbelief — very, very joyful euphoria.”
Father Baranski said everybody knew the pope previously because he had been so involved in the political arena, in breaking down the communist system. “This started way before Solidarity,” Father Baranski explained. “He encouraged the people that it was up to them, and with God’s grace things could change.”
Father Baranski lived in Zabrze, a city about 80 miles west of Krakow. For the older generations of his family, their Catholic faith personified who they were as people. The first thing his great aunt did every day, Father Baranski said, was to grab her rosary and start the day with prayer.
With great joy Father Baranski traveled on bicycle with the young people of his parish to see the pope on his first pilgrimage to Poland. The group had good tickets, or so they thought. By the time they arrived at the site of the event in Czestochowa, their seats had been taken. “It was packed,” Father Baranski remembered. “People had come the night before, before security had gotten there.”
A 20 year old during the first visit in 1979, Father Baranski was in seminary when the pope actually visited his home diocese during his second pilgrimage to Poland. The villagers had skipped planting crops that season knowing their fields would be used to accommodate the huge crowds who would come to see Pope John Paul II.
Father Baranski sees the late pope as not only a spiritual leader, but also a man very in tune with the rest of the world. “Yes, the leader of the U.S. is leader of a superpower, but the power of government leaders is limited,” Father Baranski said. “This man [Pope John Paul II] was a world-wide leader. The whole world listened to what he said and watched what he did.”
Father Mark Kaminski’s father was German and his mother was Polish. Born in Poland, the priest, who now oversees St. Anthony of Padua in Cortland, spent most of his life in Germany. He completed his last two years of high school and his first two years of college in Poland. He entered the seminary and completed his education in the US after arriving in 1996.
“To my knowledge, the people were overwhelmed,” said Father Kaminski.
The priest noted that the pope’s heritage had always been a point of pride for his mother.
“My mother recalled that moment with tears,” Father Kaminski said. Father Richard Wilczynski arrived in the US in 1982. Born in southeast Poland, Father Wilczynski studied at the Lublin Catholic School which Pope John Paul II, then a bishop, would frequently visit to deliver lectures.
The 73-year-old priest believes that the most important attributes of the recent pope were his “humanness and his sanctity.”
Downplaying the pope’s labels such as theologian and philosopher, Father Wilczynksi said in a homily following the pontiff’s death, “But these answers are not the kind that would accurately describe this personage. I would say that he was above all else, a human being in all its fullness.”
At 31, Father Golyzniak says the most recent pope was particularly important to him as he was the “pope he grew up with.”
Father Golyzniak met Pope John Paul II during a trip to Rome and the pontiff also came to his diocese in Tarnow during pilgrimages to Poland.
“All the time he was an inspiration,” Father Golyzniak said.
Many Polish Catholics credit Pope John Paul II with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
“I think he was the main person who made it end,” Father Golyzniak said, adding that when a Polish pope was elected, the communist state had to change its treatment of Catholics out of respect for his power.
Priests throughout Central New York helped their parishes deal with the death of the pope through different means.
Fr. Golyzniak had been closely following the deterioration of the pope’s health for some time. Five minutes after his death was confirmed, the priest had to officiate at a wedding. Afterward, the priest had time to reflect on John Paul II’s death.
“There was a big sadness because he was a great man,” the Rome priest said. He added, however, that perhaps the pope’s passing will help renew interest in his teachings among the native Poles.
Under communism, the priest explained, the churches had been packed with attendees who were vigorously opposed to the repressive state. After communism’s demise, however, the churches were somewhat less well attended.
“I think people realized his importance after his death…Now maybe his teaching will be more powerful and people will return [to the church],” Father Golyzniak said.
With two million Poles traveling to Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral, the love they have for him is obvious. Father Baranski said Poland is a “whole nation of people with a love affair with the pope.”
Having their own Holy Father, he said, was just icing on the cake.