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The first time

Greeting journalists aboard the flight for Poland, the Pope lost no time in addressing the issue everyone was anxious about: not the lack of security but war itself, a topic he has addressed several times before. He made it clear that perhaps the phenomenon of the current war is not “organic” but it is undoubtedly organized. He immediately turned his thoughts to Fr Jacques Hamel, whom he referred to as a “holy priest” attacked like so many martyrs before him. “How many Christians, how many innocent lives, how many children!”, His Holiness lamented recalling how Nigeria, too often forgotten, has been assailed by violence. He made a particular effort to dispel the idea of a “religious war” fueled by those who sow hatred: “as religious people, we all want peace; other kinds of people want war, do you understand?”, he said more than once.

Pope Francis is visiting East-Central Europe for the first time, and as soon as he reached Krakow, he mentioned how grateful he was for the opportunity to visit the homeland of Karol Wojtyła, his saintly predecessor who first launched the idea of World Youth Day and who held great hopes that the Old Continent would finally breathe with both lungs, East and West, nourished by “a shared civilization that acknowledged its most solid roots in Christianity.” And, calling to mind John Paul II’s sense of history and the anniversary of Poland’s baptism, it was no coincidence that he praised the Church in Poland for its extraordinarily “good memory”.

There are two positive events in the last century that the Pope especially wished to recall: the mutual pardon exchanged between the Polish and German episcopates 20 years after the Second World War, and the common declaration signed by the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1966, the Communist regime blocked a visit of Pope Paul VI to Poland for the millennial celebration of the country’s baptism, so during the main celebration at Częstochowa a portrait of Montini was placed on an empty chair to recall that sad absence. But towards the end of the next decade, the election of a new archbishop of Krakow signified the beginning of a new era, and subsequently, as a new century was inaugurated – novo millennio ineunte – a new path was opened to the election of a German pope right on the heals of a Polish pope, as if symbolically to bring a world conflict finally to an end; and this only to be followed by the election of a Bishop “from the remotest part of the world”.

So today it is Francis’ turn to visit Poland for the celebration of World Youth Day and to encourage both the nation and the Church. Precisely because the country is endowed with such a good memory, it is a chance to reflect on the coincidence of the anniversary of the Baptism of Poland and the Jubilee of Mercy: mercy, the core of the Gospel as Paul VI recalled at the end of the Council; mercy, preached by John Paul II and announced by Faustina Kowalska to the entire world. This was precisely the core of Pope Francis’ reflection at the Mass in Częstochowa, the “spiritual capital of the country”, after a dialogue between the Pope and the entire Polish episcopate in the Wawel Cathedral, the seat of the 15-year archiepiscopate of Wojtyła. Pope Francis made a special effort to reassure his brother bishops of his closeness: to all the People of God and to their priests, for whom he harbors a special love.

g.m.v.

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St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 13, 2017

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