Eyewitness to history: the canonisation of St John Paul II

Eyewitness to history: the canonisation of St John Paul II

Wanda Skowronska

April 25 is Liberation Day in Italy, commemorating the country's freedom from fascist rule in 1945. This year's celebrations had barely calmed down when Italy experienced an invasion of a different kind - albeit a friendlier invasion from Poland.

The Poles, over a million of them, had come en masse to "be there" when one of their own, former Pope John Paul II, was to be canonised on 27 April.

Of course people had come from every country for the "canonisation of the two popes" - John XXIII and John Paul II - but there was a clear preponderance of Polish flags, Solidarity flags, Polish buses, Polish-speaking nuns, priests, bishops, children and tourists.

As Sydney priest Father Milsted observed, "Everywhere you turned there were Poles".

The Irish had once been the greatest Catholic Diaspora in the world. Now it seems it was the turn of the Poles to show their demographic mobility - and yes, most of the pilgrims were young.

In Poland over 1,700 extra buses had been chartered to Italy, not to mention the 50 extra flights, the many additional trains and the private travellers who camped all their way to Rome.

There were Poles from Holland, Britain, Germany, Ireland, the USA and Australia. Being an Aussie pilgrim of Polish background who can speak Polish, as soon as I arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, I wondered what country I was in.

At the airport, on every bus and train, this Slavic language wafted through the air. There was easy converse as the Poles gave each other handy tips with directions, strategies on how to get a good spot for the canonisation Mass and how to travel around their newly conquered land.

On the streets people held placards in Polish saying "seeking accommodation".

The bus timetables were printed in Polish as well as Italian and posted at each bus stop.

Polish television stations were camped en masse near Castel St Angelo and Polish radio station vans were parked strategically near St Peter's Square.

Some African and Spanish pilgrims displayed a knowledge of Polish out of regard for the one they called "their" saint - I saw African pilgrims with multiple pictures of John Paul II sewn into their clothes and the Spaniards had rousing choruses about him in Polish and Spanish which ended in "viva, viva viva!"

Even the Romanian and Bangladeshi street hawkers and beggars had acquired Polish phrases, especially "good bargains here", "cheap souvenirs" and "can you spare a few Euros?" It seems the Poles may well have kick-started the Italian economy from its recent doldrums as restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, sellers of clothing, bags and gelato bars did a roaring trade.

But hell hath no fury like a Pole being pick-pocketed in Rome. I was on a bus when a young fellow tried to pick the pocket of a Polish woman who was alert that someone's hand was in her coat pocket.

She managed to catch the thief in time as he tried to leave the bus, holding him by the scruff of his shirt, determined to bring him to instant justice.

In front of a bus load of Poles, tourists and incensed Italian bus driver who stopped for the spectacle, the Polish woman gave a very forceful lecture on morality in loud Polish.

The guilty boy looked for a way of escape as she loudly declared what she thought of him. Who knows if he understood anything of what she said; he eventually escaped from her clutches to seek out his next hapless victim.

The force of the Polish invasion was apparent in the Masses held in churches near St Peter's which were in a variety of languages but mainly Polish.

At the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, popularly known as the "Divine Mercy church" near St Peter's, pilgrims were greeted with a two metre high Divine Mercy portrait and one of Saint John Paul II hanging out the front.

There were first class relics of Saint Faustina and Saint John Paul II in side chapels while there was barely any standing room at the Masses rolling from hour to hour each with sermons on the Divine Mercy.

Australian promoter of the Divine Mercy, Suzanne Austin, part of a Harvest pilgrim group from Sydney, came especially to seek out this church. Suzanne who also speaks some Polish was moved by the evident outpouring of devotion to the Divine Mercy in this church, saying "Pope John Paul II was the Mercy Pope."

The canonisation of Poland's new saint was to take place on Divine Mercy Sunday which the Pope himself had instituted after canonising Saint Faustina who had seen Jesus as depicted in the Divine Mercy pictures, before she died aged 33 in 1938.

As pope, John Paul II had spoken about the "extraordinary life" Saint Faustina had led. But Poles who lived under successive tyrannies of Nazism and Communism, knew that their pope may just as well have said this about himself.

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