I am spending a few days in Krakow while on the way to meet a priest friend of mine for some vacation. In addition to enjoying my first visit to Krakow in and of itself, my goal these days is to do some advance planning and information gathering to assist the 175 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who will be coming to Krakow this coming July for World Youth Day – along with a couple million other young Catholics and Pope Francis! According to the digital coundown clock above the main entrance of St. Mary’s Basilica on the Main Market Square in Krakow, there are only 145 days left until the beginning of World Youth Day – and it looks like the city is getting ready.
I arrived in Krakow a little after noon, and so only had the afternoon to explore the city. My primary goal was to spend considerable time at Wawel Cathedral – the mother church of the Archdiocese of Krakow and a place that holds a special place in the hearts of all Poles and in the life of St. John Paul II. More about Wawel in a bit. On the way there, and in my general wanderings around Krakow this afternoon, I quickly understood why this city is sometimes called a second Rome – I have never been anywhere other than Rome with so many churches in such a compact area! There are over 120 churches in the old town of Krakow itself – often there’s not just a churh on every block, but a few churches on every block. And because the Catholic Church is alive and vibrant in Poland, these churches are alive and vibrant as well. During World Youth Day, many of these churches will be sites of liturgies, Eucharistic Adoration, concerts, and other events – giving pilgrims countless opportunities to experience the many different churches in this city, of all sizes, various styles of architecture, and containing some breathtaking religious art. One of my favorite finds today was a pulpit that is designed as a silver and gold boat affixed to the wall of a church, home to a community of Poor Clare nuns.
One of the other unique aspects of the Church in Krakow is the number of canonized Saints associated with this city … which brings us to Wawel Cathedral. An ancient church – with foundations over a thousand years old and chapels and walls built on over the years – Wawel Cathedral began as the royal chapel for the kings of Poland – and is the burial place of most of the royal families of this country, including one queen who is a canonized Saint, St. Jadwiga. It also contains the tomb of the martyred bishop of Krakow, St. Stanislaw, killed down the hill from the Cathedral by an angry king. And in the crypt of the Cathedral, you can visit the St. Leonard Chapel, where St. John Paul II celebrated his First Masses as a priest. Wawel is also where he was ordained a bishop and served as the Archbishop of Krakow. I have long heard Wawel referred to as the heart of Poland – and as the most meaningful place on earth for St. John Paul II. Having been there and prayed today, I begin to sense what all that means.
I can already tell that this trip will be fruitful for our Archdiocesan pilgrimage this summer in being able to gather some good information and get a lay of the land before the crowds of pilgrims arrive – I had the St. Leondard Chapel at Wawel to myself for a bit this afternoon, something which won’t be possible with a couple million visitors in town. Tomorrow, though, should provide some very concrete information – I have a meeting in the morning with the Consular Chief at the US Consulate in Krakow to discuss safety, security, and US Citizen services during World Youth Day. Then, I plan to head to Nowa Huta, the neighborhood on the outskirts of the city where our group will be staying during World Youth Day, so I can visit our hotel, learn how to get there and back to the Old Town on public transportation, and find out what the neighborhood we’re staying in is like. More to report in the days ahead …