In a recent book, The Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner sets out on what he calls “a search for the world’s most creative places, from ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.” Change the term “most creative places” to “places that embody a civilization-building accomplishment,” or “places most emblematic of an era,” and there would probably be considerable overlap. For some cities embody the spirit of an age, for good or ill, in a singular way.
Think “classical Greece” and the emergence in Western civilization of a confidence in reason’s capacity to get at the truth of things, and, yes, you immediately think of Athens between the mid-fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.
Think “biblical religion” and its contribution to the unique civilization of the West—the conviction that life is pilgrimage and journey, not endless cycles or one damn thing after another—and you think of Jerusalem.
Think “the superiority of the rule of law to the rule of brute force,” another building block of the West, and you think of Rome and the Senate House in Cicero’s day.
Think “medieval Christendom” and its powerful synthesis of classical learning and biblical wisdom, and you think of Paris around 1257—and what it must have been like to study under Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.
Think “Renaissance humanism,” and the mind immediately turns to the Florence of Dante, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Michelangelo.
Think “Scottish Enlightenment” and its impact on the philosophical and economic life of the West, and you think of Edinburgh in the mid-eighteenth century, the days of David Hume and Adam Smith.
And then think of a West whose moral and cultural foundations are beginning to be eroded by the acids of nihilism, skepticism, and relativism, and you remember Vienna in the early twentieth century, where the cultural elite is saturated with irony and cynicism and psychology has displaced philosophy and theology as the principal tool for understanding the human condition.
The list could be expanded, but perhaps the point is made: Some places, at some moments, distinctively embody the zeitgeist, the character of an age.
Which raises another question: If there is something plausibly described as a “geography of genius,” might there be something plausibly described as the “geography of sanctity”—places where the human opening to divine grace is such that heroic virtue abounds? Pondering that question, I remembered a conversation in April 1997 with Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, John Paul II’s successor as archbishop of Kraków. I was preparing the first volume of my biography of the pope, Witness to Hope, and the cardinal and I were sitting in one of the drawing rooms of his residence, discussing the unique character of his city, the remarkable “fit” between Karol Wojtyła and Kraków, and the equally remarkable cast of characters that had been drawn into Wojtyła’s work and his circle of friends before his transition from the Chair of St. Stanisław to the Chair of St. Peter.
In the course of our conversation, I asked Cardinal Macharski how many beatification and canonization causes were underway for Cracovians, thinking the answer might be a handful or so. I knew about Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the apostle of divine mercy, and then there was Jan Tyranowski, Karol Wojtyła’s mentor in the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. But were there perhaps a few others, I wondered?
The cardinal smiled and promised me a memorandum on the subject, which arrived a few weeks later. I was stunned to find that there had been thirty causes introduced or completed in Kraków since World War II—and this did not include six men and women who had lived for some time in Kraków but whose causes had been introduced in other dioceses. The cardinal also included in his memo a roster of twenty-eight canonized saints, beatified men and women, and “servants of God” (those for whom beatification causes were in process) whose relics were preserved or interred in Kraków.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this: Kraków, after all, had been a very Catholic city for a long time. But what was so striking about the cardinal’s memorandum was how very contemporary the roster of Cracovian saints’ causes was. Yes, the register of those who had been canonized or beatified included the fourteenth-century Polish queen, Jadwiga, and the fifteenth-century preacher of devotion to the Eucharist, Stanisław Kazimierczyk. But it also included several martyrs of the Second World War, including the Salesian priest Józef Kowalski, drowned in excrement at Auschwitz in 1942 for refusing to trample on rosary beads. And the avant-garde artist turned radical Franciscan servant of the poor, Albert Chmielowski, who died in 1916. And Jerzy Ciesielski, Karol Wojtyła’s closest lay friend and his instructor in the art of kayaking, who died in 1970. And Paula Zofia Tajber, foundress of a religious order, whose funeral Mass homily was preached by Bishop Karol Wojtyła in 1963. And Jan Pietraszko, one of Cardinal Wojtyła’s auxiliary bishops and, like Wojtyła, a great campus minister in the 1940s and 1950s. And two twentieth-century nurses, Rozalia Celakówna (who died in 1944 while caring for patients with venereal diseases) and Hanna Chrzanowska (the daughter of a famous professor, who led Cardinal Wojtyła’s “open nursing” program, a service to the indigent sick who had been abandoned by the state in Communist Poland).
Kraków, it seems, is a capital city in the “geography of sanctity,” and not only in some distant past when faith and piety were the norm, but now, in our lifetimes, at a cultural moment in the history of the West when the “geography of genius” leads us to that hyper-secular entrepôt, Silicon Valley. And there must be some connection between this flourishing of heroic virtue—the Church’s measure of sanctity—and Kraków’s experience of the evils perpetrated by the lacerating flail of the two twentieth-century totalitarianisms, German National Socialism and Soviet Communism.
The linkage was suggested by what my friend and colleague Fr. Raymond de Souza said when we were teaching together in Kraków a few years ago. Kraków, he proposed, was “the city where the twentieth century happened.” He was right, and for two reasons.
Kraków certainly endured the exemplary agonies of the twentieth century: In its own draconian wartime occupation, when the rule of law ceased to exist, random homicide at the hands of the Wehrmacht or the Gestapo was an everyday occurrence, and for five years you couldn’t know whether you’d be alive tomorrow morning, much less on your next birthday. That agony was intensified by the liquidation of Kraków’s Nazi-built Jewish ghetto at the Płaszów concentration camp (best known today from Schindler’s List) and at nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Third Reich, improving on the Soviet gulags, refined the industrialized mass murder of the innocent. Then there was the kidnapping of professors from the Jagiellonian University and their deportation to Sachsenhausen and Dachau, as the Nazis tried to decapitate Poland’s high culture. The suffering continued in the postwar usurpation of Poland’s liberties by the Soviet Union and the wave of religious and political persecution that followed, in which Poles of unimpeachable integrity and patriotism were judicially murdered. That persecution festered for decades in the many degrading attempts by the Communists to create Homo Sovieticus in Poland’s ancient cultural capital—and, indeed, to displace Kraków with a new city on its eastern periphery, Nowa Huta, deliberately built as a godless incubator for New Soviet Man.
Yet Kraków also provided the answer to all of that horror and wickedness. For it was from Kraków that the visions of divine mercy emanating from the heart of the Risen Christ experienced by an obscure Polish nun, Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska, radiated out into the world and became the basis of a new form of Catholic devotional piety. Moreover, it was from Kraków that a mission-driven man of God, Karol Wojtyła, was sent to Rome and, as Pope John Paul II, preached the message of the divine mercy to a world badly in need of healing, after a century that had done grave damage to the moral fabric of humanity, leaving a crushing burden of guilt in its wake.
Kraków in the twentieth century was a unique crossroads of evil and nobility: in theological terms, sin and grace. That, it seems on reflection, was not accidental, and the lessons that can be taken from the Cracovian experience of unspeakable wickedness and astonishing goodness are not for Kraków and Poland alone. They are universal, because they touch on the power of culture, memory, identity, and conviction, supported by religious faith and purified by reason, to bend the curve of history in a more humane direction, even when that trajectory has been severely warped.
To ponder what all that means for the twenty-first century, we must step back into Kraków’s history. For in that history we can see that Kraków stands out in three distinct, but interrelated, ways: as the safe-deposit box of Polish identity, as a city of resistance, and as a center of devotion to the divine mercy.
Kraków: Safe-Deposit Box of National Identity
In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II spoke of memory as “that faculty which models the identity of human beings at both the personal and collective level.” Memory is not passive; memory is an active faculty that preserves identity by a process of “handing on,” tradere, the root from which we get the English word “tradition.” Tradition is thus a living, active, dynamic thing. And as John Henry Newman famously showed in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, tradition and identity grow and develop in history, not by dramatic ruptures with the past, but by remaining true to themselves in what Newman called “preservation of type.” That seems to be true of the traditions of families. It is certainly true of the tradition of the Church (for which we find evidence as early as the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians). And it’s also true of Kraków. There, what “Poland” means—or perhaps better, what Poland at its finest has sought to be—was defined, preserved, and developed over ten stormy centuries: in a host of institutions and noble buildings, in a distinctive cultural ambience, and in the lives of men and women who left an enduring imprint on the life of a city that embodied the aspirations of an entire nation.
The history of a distinct, national-political entity called “Poland” began in 966 with the baptism of the Piast prince, Mieszko I. That Mieszko was christened in, and had his people adopt, Latin Christianity set Poland on a distinctive course. Here was a Slavic people who spoke a Slavic language, yet who wrote it in a slightly modified Latin alphabet and who worshipped in the Latin Rite of a then-undivided Christian Church. From the beginning, then, Poland was constituted as a crossroads, a place of encounter between cultures where the challenge was to transform plurality, or difference, into pluralism: to live in multifaceted encounter with others such that the mix enriches one’s own identity.
In all of Poland—and it should be remembered that Poland was once the second-largest power in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and from the German-speaking lands of the West to the approaches to Moscow on its east—nothing embodied Poland-as-cultural-crossroads more than the Rynek Głowny, the Main Market Square, of Kraków. In 1257, the city, whose recorded origins go back to the ninth century, was granted Magdeburg rights, a form of civic constitution based on medieval corporate law. Shortly thereafter, the city’s center was shifted as the vast Main Square we know today was laid out: the largest public space in Europe, some 650 feet by 650 feet, its sheer breadth and length challenged only by the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
Today, the square is bounded by pastel-colored, four- and five-story buildings that were once the homes of Polish magnates and burghers, and that now serve as offices, apartments, restaurants, and shops. Its dominant features include the great Sukiennice [Cloth-Merchants Hall], which was central Europe’s first shopping mall, and the magnificent Gothic Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Mariacki. In centuries past, the square was a place where multiple languages could be heard, where trading expeditions were planned, where East met West and the northern European peoples met their neighbors to the south—and where schemes of national liberation were concocted during Poland’s exile from the map of Europe.
More recently, hundreds of thousands of Cracovians instinctively gravitated to the square on May 13, 1981, at a hastily organized “White Mass” celebrated by Cardinal Macharski on the steps of the Mariacki. There, white-clad Poles prayed for the life of their former archbishop, hours after he was shot in another square, St. Peter’s Square, in what they all believed was an attempt by Soviet power to liquidate the inspiration for the revolution of conscience then gaining force in central and eastern Europe.
If the Main Market Square embodies the historical memory of Poland as a place of human encounter where diversity is transformed into various forms of community, the nearby complex on Wawel Hill speaks of salvation history and its relationship to world history, as recorded in the story of Kraków as both political and spiritual capital of Poland: political capital from 1038 until 1596, and spiritual capital from the eleventh century to the twenty-first. For there, atop the limestone escarpment of Wawel and visible throughout the city, are the Royal Castle and the Cathedral of SS. Wenceslaus and Stanisław, linked by a gate over which is carved Romans 8:31, Si Deus nobiscum quis contra nos [If God is for us, who can be against us?].
The castle is a splendid expression of cultures in conversation and mutual enrichment. The longtime home of Polish kings, it was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century in a High Italian Renaissance style by King Zygmunt I and his Milanese wife, Bona Sforza. In the cathedral crypt, the kings and queens who once ruled from the castle, or later from Warsaw, are buried. There we find the tomb of King Jan III Sobieski, whose defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683 ended what was, until recently, the last great Islamic assault on Europe. Across from Sobieski in the St. Leonard chapel of the crypt is the last resting place of General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who fought for American freedom as well as Polish independence, and whose example inspired later Polish patriots (including the pilots of the RAF’s Kosciuśzko Squadron in the Battle of Britain) to fight under a motto that combined national and universal aspiration: Za naszą i waszą wolność [For your freedom and ours]. And at the center of the cathedral’s nave is the silver sarcophagus of St. Stanisław, from whom derives the tradition of the Cracovian bishop as the ultimate defender of the rights of his people. One of the most recent representatives of that tradition, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, the archbishop who defied the Nazi gangster Hans Frank, is buried just in front of the Stanisław shrine.
The cult of St. Stanisław did not begin on Wawel, however. It began at the site of his martyrdom about a half-mile away, at Skałka, the “little rock”—the Cracovian site that speaks most profoundly of religious freedom and its importance to civil society and public life. There, in 1079, Bishop Stanisław of Szczepanów, sometimes known in the Anglosphere as the “Polish Becket,” was murdered by King Bolesław the Bold, who thought the bishop a danger to his authority. The veneration of the martyred bishop did not only drive the king into exile. By inscribing the liberty of the Church into Poland’s national memory, the Stanisław cult was one piece in the complex puzzle of the development of an independent civil society and religious freedom in Poland: a marked contrast to the subordination of religious to political authority that would prevail to the east, in Russian Orthodoxy.
The martyr-bishop was not the only Cracovian who engraved religious freedom and the superiority of persuasion over coercion into the cultural memory and identity of Kraków and Poland. There was Paweł Włodkowic, a fifteenth-century professor at the Academy of Kraków (which later grew into the Jagiellonian University), who argued at the Council of Constance against the Teutonic Knights’ practice of converting pagans with the sword. And there was King Zygmunt August, last of the monarchs in the Jagiellonian dynasty, who, during the Reformation controversies of the sixteenth century, told the Polish gentry that he was not “the king of your consciences.”
The Main Market Square, Wawel, Skałka, and the Jagiellonian University (where the motto Plus ratio quam vis [Reason rather than force] is inscribed in stone over the entrance to the Aula Magna of the Collegium Maius) are four embodiments of Poland’s national-cultural memory: the living tradition that was crucial in maintaining the Polish nation when the Polish state was erased from the map of Europe in the Third Partition of 1795, which parceled out the remaining bits of an eight-hundred-year-old historic state to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. It would be 123 years before the resurrection of Polish independence in 1918. In that century and a quarter, Poland-the-nation survived through the stubborn vitality of its cultural memory: through its language, its literature, and its religious faith, all of which kept alive the idea of “Poland” that the Russians tried to eradicate, the Prussians tried to supplant, and the Austrians left more or less alone. Being in the Austrian sector of partitioned Poland, Kraków was more at liberty to preserve the national memory, and thus the aspiration to independence. And it was the Kraków Old Town, the medieval center of the city—once surrounded by high walls and great gates, later by a vast greenbelt park, the Planty—that physically embodied memories of the freedom of the past in a polity that acknowledged the liberty of the Church, the independence of culture and scholarship, and the prerogatives of civil society.
During Poland’s exile from the ranks of independent states, Kraków became the safe-deposit box of the identity from which a new Poland would be born. And crucial to that identity was the conviction that religious faith, refined by reason, was a liberating force in human affairs and a driver of history.
Kraków: City of Resistance
For all the attention paid to World War II in books and films, few people in the contemporary West have any idea of how bad things were in Poland between 1939 and 1945. One-fifth of the nation was dead by the end of the war, including virtually all of Polish Jewry. Poland’s cities were smashed to bits. Thanks to Hitler’s Carthaginian retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising of August and September 1944, there was no structure more than three feet tall in Poland’s capital when the war ended. Twenty-three thousand Poles—reserve officers drawn from the professions, who were expected to be the leaders of postwar Poland—had been murdered, one by one with a bullet in the back of the head, by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in the Katyn forest massacres of April and May 1940. Having been liberated from the Nazis by the Red Army, Poland found itself, in the aftermath of the war, under a new occupation: a Communist occupation, fronted by Poles but enforced by Soviet military power and secret police brutality. Abandoned by the West at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, Poland in 1945 began what would turn out to be another forty-four years of national incarceration.
Kraków was the only major Polish city not flattened during the war: The Germans had gotten to the city too quickly in 1939, and had scuttled out too hurriedly in January 1945, to indulge very much of the Nazi penchant for gratuitous destruction. And while the occupation had been draconian in every imaginable respect—the goal being to work the Poles to death for the greater glory of the Thousand Year Reich—Kraków’s spirit had not been broken. Life during what Cardinal Karol Wojtyła would call “the long dark night of occupation” can be explored today at a magnificent new museum, built on the site of Oskar Schindler’s old enamel works. As for the indefatigable Cracovian habit of freedom-fighting, it continued throughout the occupation in various forms of resistance that included Wojtyła’s Rhapsodic Theater, an effort to preserve cultural memory as an antidote to despair. That obstinate insistence on independence then manifested itself quickly in the postwar Communist period. The city returned the highest percentage of anti-Communist votes in two bogus “elections,” stage-managed in 1946 and 1947 in a crude attempt to give a veneer of legitimacy to the new Polish People’s Republic and the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party.
The party-state’s answer to that Cracovian stubbornness was to build a new city, a kind of replacement city, where New Soviet Man could be fabricated along with steel. Thus began Nowa Huta, the “model workers’ city” on the eastern outskirts of Kraków, to which young people were recruited from all over Poland. Not only would Nowa Huta be the first settlement in the history of Poland deliberately built without a church; it would also be a city without the traditional restraints of the countryside, where parents, priests, and nuns taught the young a moral order and a manner of life quite different from that promoted by Poland’s Communists, who were selling free love when Haight-Ashbury was just another San Francisco neighborhood.
Everything in Nowa Huta was the deliberate antithesis of the Kraków Old Town. The public art, such as it was, was the crudest form of socialist realism. The architecture was so banal as to make Walter Gropius and other practitioners of the International Style seem like Gianlorenzo Bernini or Christopher Wren. Its broad boulevards were built on a gargantuan, inhuman scale, to facilitate mass marches of human robots on May Day and other Communist holy days. And then there were the huge apartment blocks. The apartments in them were small, to discourage large families. There was no passage through the long axis of each building. To visit a neighbor in the apartment next to yours, you had to go downstairs, leave the building, enter by another door, and go back upstairs—thus facilitating the work of the ubiquitous secret police while impeding the formation of communities other than those under party control.
But it was Nowa Huta’s deliberate godlessness that was its most striking feature—and that became the focal point of a long, concerted campaign against Polish Communism’s experiment in the remanufacture of the human person.
Not long after Nowa Huta was built, crowds began assembling in an open field, demanding the celebration of Mass and, so to speak, marking the turf where they wanted a church built. Beginning on December 24–25, 1959, Bishop Karol Wojtyła began celebrating Christmas midnight Mass in that snow-covered open field with thousands of congregants gathered in the bitter cold. It was a tradition he continued when he became archbishop in 1964. As his longtime secretary, Stanisław Dziwisz, would later put it, the struggle with Poland’s Communist regime for a church in Nowa Huta “permanently shaped Wojtyła’s pastoral program as an archbishop, just as it permanently shaped his personality as an unyielding defender of human rights, of the rights of freedom of conscience and religion.”
Over the fourteen years of Wojtyła’s ministry as archbishop of Kraków, a remarkable “fit” developed between a bishop and his city. The archbishop was a man of learning and culture in the city that had long been a major center of liberal education, science, and the arts. The archbishop who ordained him, Cardinal Sapieha, trained Wojtyła in the Stanisław tradition of the bishop as defensor civitatis. He knew the city inside and out from his long pastoral visits to its parishes and his extensive contacts among people of all classes. It was a city in which, as he once put it, “every stone and every brick is dear to me.” And it was the city in which, during the annual Corpus Christi procession near Wawel, a scholar-poet who was not given to raising his voice learned to be a great public figure, as he boldly proclaimed the rights not only of his Catholic flock, but of every Cracovian and every Pole to religious freedom and other basic human liberties.
Returning to what he called “my beloved Kraków” during his epic first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979—the last four of the Nine Days on which the history of the twentieth century pivoted—he fused all that he had learned in and from Kraków into one brilliant sermon, delivered on June 10, 1979, before a congregation of over a million on the Błonia Krakówskie, the Kraków Commons. In that masterpiece of homiletics, John Paul II wove together the thick history of Wawel and Skałka, the beauty of the Mariacki and the openness of the Main Market Square, the liberal arts traditions of the Jagiellonian University and the lessons of the battle for Nowa Huta. He summoned his people to build a new future, and to do so by reclaiming and owning their national memory, the living tradition of which they were the heirs and custodians. He called down upon them the power of the Holy Spirit, and begged them, “Do not . . . cut yourselves off from the roots from which we had our origins. . . . Have trust, and . . . always seek spiritual power from him from whom countless generations of our fathers and mothers have found it. . . . Never lose your spiritual freedom.”
They heard him. And with so many others throughout Poland, they began to build a revolution of conscience that would, over ten hard years, create a new form of political revolution that the hard-power weapons of Communism could not match. The Solidarity movement’s body was conceived, gestated, and born in the Baltic seaport of Gdańsk; its soul was forged in no small part in Kraków.
Kraków: City of Divine Mercy
There are many reasons why John Paul II could do in June 1979 what no one else could possibly have done. Surely one of those reasons is that he was a son of Kraków, where divine mercy and its power to heal what seemed most broken in the human condition had been revealed to a simple nun who, by affirming her trust in the Lord—Jezu ufam tobie, “Jesus, I trust in you”—empowered others to put their trust in One whose power was stronger than oppression, even stronger than death itself.
Young Karol Wojtyła never met Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska, who died in October 1938. But during his years as a chemical factory worker in the Borek Fałęcki district of Kraków during the war, he would walk past the convent in which Sr. Faustina had died and was buried, and he would often stop there to pray. Just as he never met Maximilian Kolbe, whose story of priestly self-sacrifice at Auschwitz inspired in him a heroic concept of the priesthood, so it was with Faustina: The influence was in the order of grace. That was also true of the other Cracovian saints whose legacies shaped Wojtyła’s rich spiritual life. Stanisław and Jadwiga and Albert Chmielowski and Jan Kanty and all those whose heroic virtue had touched his life helped form the soul of the man who would, in time, be canonized more rapidly than any of those who had inspired him.
In that great crowd of witnesses, Sr. Faustina stands out in a particular way, and as a perhaps surprising bridge between the Tridentine Catholicism she embodied and the Second Vatican Council, to which John Paul II gave an authoritative interpretation.
In his letter to the Ante-Preparatory Commission preparing the council’s agenda, Bishop Karol Wojtyła argued that an anthropological crisis—a crisis in the West’s understanding of the human person—was at the bottom of the supreme awfulness of the twentieth century: the death camps of the Nazis and the Communists, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the greatest persecution in the history of Christianity, all caused by mad racial theories or the Marxist reduction of humanity and its history to the means of production. Totalitarianism had caused tens of millions of deaths; it had also torn great holes in the moral fabric of humanity. Those holes could not be repaired by prosperity alone, or even political freedom alone. Both prosperity and freedom would self-destruct if they were not built on the truth about the human person, including the truth that the human propensity for evil can be blunted by the power of divine grace, just as human guilt can be relieved by the experience of divine mercy.
And where does one find the revelation of divine grace and divine mercy? Christians find it above all, Wojtyła wrote the Ante-Preparatory Commission, in Jesus Christ. That was why he proposed that Vatican II undertake a great, Christologically focused rescue operation, saving the humanistic project of the West from further descent into incoherent solipsism by proposing that in Christ we meet both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity.
Wojtyła would later help write that conviction into paragraph 22 of Gaudium et Spes, the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. It was a Cracovian conviction, one of whose roots may be found in those evenings of prayer at Sr. Faustina’s convent chapel. There, during an occupation that almost killed him on more than one occasion, a young man dressed in denim and wearing wooden clogs sought answers to the horrors that surrounded him. And he found them in faith: the faith that taught him that divine mercy is stronger than human wickedness; the faith that bred in him a unique fearlessness and taught him to resist evils the world thought inevitable and unchangeable; the faith that allowed him to challenge others, “Be not afraid!” Grace-inspired fearlessness, he came to believe, can alter the course of history.
In the Cracovian experience, divine mercy is transformative and world-changing. It is not a Christian form of “I’m OK, you’re OK,” and it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The divine mercy that Karol Wojtyła learned about in Kraków and that he preached to the world—setting the stage for Pope Francis’s Jubilee of Mercy, which Catholics around the world celebrate this year—is a richly textured experience of grace, challenging and purifying.
The Things We Learn from Kraków
Kraków and its distinctive experience of the twentieth century remind us of the power of culture in history. National memory, kept alive by national culture, preserved national identity during the century and a quarter in which there was nothing labeled “Poland” on the map of Europe—and it did so with such dynamism that the Polish state could be reborn from the rubble of World War I. National memory, kept alive by national culture, preserved national identity during the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Communist usurpation of Poland’s liberties. In the face of overwhelming material force and under the severest conditions, the strength of national memory, carried forward in a living and growing tradition, provided Poland with the capacity to renew the promise of freedom and give birth to a new and more humane future.
This experience stands as a rebuke to the Jacobin fallacy and to the Marxist fallacy. According to the Jacobin fallacy, politics, understood as the quest for power, construed as my ability to impose my will on you, is the principal driver of history. According to the Marxist fallacy, “history” is the by-product of impersonal economic forces. Those two fallacies helped make an abattoir of the twentieth century. Their Cracovian refutation was a great gift to
For cultural memory to be liberating, however, it must be grounded in truth, especially the truth about the human person, which we can know by both reason and revelation. And as John Paul II demonstrated during the Nine Days of June 1979, such a memory, grounded in truth, can be successfully deployed as a means of resisting preponderant material force.
That “ideas have consequences” has become something of a cliché; the history of Kraków is a useful reminder that this cliché discloses an important truth about the human condition. When new forms of materialism, more seductive than Marxism because they are less obviously brutal, threaten the civilizational project of the West, we need the example of Kraków. The materialism of what Leon Kass has called the immortality project, made possible by the new genetics and the bio-tech revolution, comes seductively wrapped in the mantle of compassion. But there is no essential difference between the bio-materialist’s concept of the human person as matter-to-be-manipulated and the racist and economistic degradations of the human that were at the root of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism. The only difference is in the sugarcoating that accompanies the new bio-materialism. And where that leads was made abundantly clear by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World—to the decay of freedom and toward a new authoritarianism.
Kraków also teaches us that faith and reason are not competitors. As a center of learning for over half a millennium, Kraków has embodied the truth taught by John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, that faith must be purified by reason if religious conviction is not to decay into superstition. In Kraków, Copernicus began to rethink our planet’s relationship to the cosmos. In Kraków, Karol Wojtyła began to rethink the philosophical foundations of freedom. Both of those projects, undertaken by men of faith who were also men of reason, had important consequences in what the cynical sometimes call the “real world.”
At the same time, the modern history of Kraków shows us that reason untethered from faith can deteriorate into irrationality, with terrible “real-world” consequences. The two twentieth-century totalitarianisms under which Kraków suffered were ultra-mundane secularisms that imagined themselves rational, but were in fact utterly irrational and grotesquely immoral. And it would be very foolish to bet that today’s form of ultra-mundane secularism, the aggressiveness of which is ever more apparent around us, will have happier results in individual lives, in human relationships, or in public life.
Finally, Kraków, and especially Wawel, teaches us that salvation history and world history do not run on parallel tracks that never intersect. Rather, Kraków teaches us that salvation history—the term used by biblical religion for God’s action in the world—is the inner core of world history. Inside the history that is organized by chapter headings like “Ancient Civilization,” “Greece and Rome,” “the Middle Ages,” “Renaissance and Reformation,” “the Age of Reason,” “the Age of Science,” and “the Space Age” is another, even more dynamic history, one that is best captured in terms like “creation,” “promise,” “prophecy,” and “redemption.” Those who understand the power of that history and conform their lives to it can bring good out of evil, because they can perceive light amid the darkest darkness. The light of Providence can, through human instruments open to grace, inspire individual lives and public life, even amid the most lethal wickedness.
Kraków, the city where the twentieth century happened, teaches us that there are no inevitabilities in the course of history; that things do not have to be the way they are; that human agency, formed by convictions rooted in the truth, can successfully resist evil in its many forms, including cynicism. Kraków teaches us that good can be brought out of evil, and that the drama of history is, finally, what Dante knew it to be: a divine comedy, in which the purification of minds and hearts by an encounter with divine mercy leads to the vision of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—and through that vision to the establishment of a measure of decency in human affairs.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. This essay is adapted from City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków, which he authored with Carrie Gress and Stephen Weigel.