Reflections on a friend

April 7 – 13
VOL 124 NO. 13
Reflections on a friend
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Although Father Casimir Krzysiak recalls personally a relationship with Pope John Paul II, he is quick to sweep past his personal recollections and on to those memories shared by many Catholics around the world.

Asked for a description of the pope, then the young seminarian Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Father Krzysiak offers a brief description..

“He was first of all, very pious. He was always the first one to chapel. Secondly, he was a very smart man, a genius,” the priest said..

Father Krzysiak spent three months living in the same room as Wojtyla, who, a few years older, would always help the younger seminarians with their studies..

Father Krzysiak joined the Krakow seminary in January of 1945, when Poland was in the process of recovering from the German occupation during World War II. At the time, the Polish government was using the seminary proper to house prisoners of war returning from the Eastern Front. The seminarians were housed in the guest rooms of Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha. The government finally vacated the seminary in April that year and the students were permitted to enter it where they were given individual rooms..

The Germans had closed all of Poland’s institutes of higher learning, but Cardinal Sapieha had kept alive a clandestine seminary in Krakow..

“He was a very brave man and he decided to teach some of the seminarians in secret,” Father Krzysiak said. .

The few students who studied there such as Wojtyla worked during the day and then studied at night. As a young seminarian, Wojtyla worked in a quarry and then at the Solvay chemical factory..

Cardinal Sapieha had brought Wojtyla to his residence in 1942 after the man who would become pope had a close call with the German military during one of its routine street sweeps..

In the years following his election to the papacy, Pope John Paul II retained his memories of Father Krzysiak. Upon meeting the pope some years ago, Bishop James Moynihan of the Syracuse Diocese mentioned Father Krzysiak and the pontiff corrected the bishop’s pronunciation of the Polish name..

Father Krzysiak attributes the fall of communism in Eastern Europe largely to the effort of the pope..

“He was responsible for the fall of communism in Poland with [Lech Walesa] and that of course was a domino and resulted with what happened with the Berlin Wall and communism in Europe after that fell altogether,” Father Krzysiak said..

That said, Father Krzysiak stressed that the church in Poland had remained too strong a force. The communists were powerless to outmuscle an institution that claimed the allegiance of, in Father Krzysiak’s estimation, 95 percent of the population..

“Poland did not suffer as much as the other countries in Europe because they [the communist government] were afraid,” the priest said. “You see 95 percent of the Polish are Catholics. They were afraid that if they came after the church, then there would be an uprising throughout the whole country. And that’s why they did not dare to arrest as many as they would in different countries.”.

The priest also makes it a point of pride that the pope was not only a Polish national like himself, but also a pontiff that he considers to be among the greatest..

“I tell people that Poland waited 1,000 years for a pope, but the Blessed Mother gave us her beloved son who became one of the better-known popes in history,” Father Krzysiak said..

Father Krzysiak believes that one of the challenges facing the pope following his appointment was a progressive thread in the church, which advocated innovations such as allowing priests to marry and women at the pulpit..

Father Krzysiak believes that the pope perhaps sacrificed some popularity in his efforts to maintain the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church..

“He gave away popularity, but he wasn’t seeking popularity,” the Utica priest said..

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II was, in fact, popular in the conventional sense; according to the priest’s own account..

“He became the pope of the people, traveling the whole world,” Father Krzysiak said. “There wasn’t one continent that he didn’t cover….He was the pope of the youth. Not by hundreds or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands.”.

Father Krzysiak believes the late pope’s resonance with the youth emerged from a forthright message. “Why did the youth love him? They said when they were interviewed, ‘Because he tells the truth.’ That’s why they trust him, because he tells them the truth,” Father Krzysiak said..

Above all, Father Krzysiak believes that the pope was a compassionate leader to people..

“He is and will be remembered as a real, true, good shepherd,” he said. “With him, there was not one person, rich or poor, that he couldn’t address properly. That shows a lot of character. The poor, the sick, the children – he wasn’t afraid to touch the lepers. He wasn’t afraid to go to those with AIDS.”

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