KRAKOW, Poland — Nine years after his death, tens of thousands of Poles lauded their beloved countryman, Pope John Paul II, as he was declared a saint in an unprecedented Vatican ceremony yesterday.
Bells tolled across Poland and the crowds applauded, in unison with those gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, when Pope Francis declared the pontiff from Poland a saint.
John Paul remains a vital figure to many of his countrymen for having helped end communism in Poland, for his support of the Solidarity freedom movement that peacefully achieved that goal in 1989, and for his teachings about human rights and dignity.
Throughout Poland, the Vatican transmission was followed by a Mass of thanksgiving for the sainthood of a figure believed to be one of the greatest Poles ever.
“This is a great day for Poland, this is a great day for me,” said Maria Jurek from Katowice, her voice laden with emotion. “He changed Poland and he changed us with his teaching and with his visits here.”
Her friend, Izabella Gorecka, said she felt elated and “flew” up the sanctuary steps, despite feeling hip pain.
They got up at 4:30 a.m. to join a pilgrimage organized by their parish church — complete with papal yellow and white flags, a portable canvas stool and their own food — to watch the Vatican ceremony live on giant screens at the new John Paul II sanctuary in Krakow that is competing for pilgrims with the neighboring, popular God’s Mercy sanctuary.
John Paul’s sanctuary, still under construction, was initiated in 2011, when the pope’s personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz placed a vial of the pontiff’s blood in one of its white marble altars. The other, older sanctuary, was blessed by John Paul in 2002, and by tradition gathered larger crowds.
Born Karol Wojtyla, the pope spent 40 years in Krakow, first as a Polish language student and eventually as bishop, before becoming pope in 1978 and taking the name of John Paul. He died April 2, 2005, and his pontificate was among the longest in history. While pope, he visited Poland many times.