When a senior Polish cabinet minister was asked by the FT whether the government had been more preoccupied with this month’s visit of US President Barack Obama or that of Pope Francis, he replied without hesitation: “The Pope, of course.”
Warsaw has been feverishly preparing for the pontiff’s arrival this week — the government has appointed a dedicated secretary of state to plan for the occasion, built a road named after their guest, and filled the city of Krakow with hundreds of pop-up confession boxes for over 1.5m expected pilgrims.
When the Pope arrives in Poland on Wednesday, his presence will resonate beyond the usual pomp and circumstance of his trips. Catholicism looms large in Poland — some 90 per cent of its citizens belong to the religion and the Catholic church is closely linked with the country’s independence , given its prominent role in the campaign to overthrow communism in 1989.
But despite Poland’s adulation for the Pope and his church, and the excitement among Poles ahead of his first visit to the country, the five-day trip will also test the pontiff’s diplomatic nous.
Pope Francis has big shoes to fill in Poland — his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is a local hero who was archbishop of Krakow and is the closest thing to a national saint. Pope John Paul II also espoused a form of conservative Catholicism that is still followed by senior Polish clergy, even though it runs counter to the reformist path taken by the current pontiff.
Local church leaders are also broadly allied with Poland’s nationalist government, which has refused to accept refugees fleeing war in the Middle East — in direct opposition to the Pope’s demand for European countries to do more to help migrants.
The Pope, who is generally outspoken, is unlikely to publicly rebuke Warsaw over its stance on refugees for fear of embarrassing his hosts, Vatican watchers say. “The issue will be in the air,” says Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for the Tablet, a Catholic weekly. “But he will try to stay away from a public row.”
The pontiff may have opportunities to voice veiled criticisms at some events during his trip, which will include a prayer vigil featuring a testimony from a Syrian woman.
“For Polish Catholics it could be a good lesson of humbleness to see that Poland, with its traditional approach, is not the last and only anchor of Catholicism in the world, and we can still learn a lot from the others,” said Gabriela Wasko, a 26-year-old Polish architect living in Krakow. “His visit will help us to look at Christianity from a more humane side.”
Vatican officials have suggested that the Pope’s main objective in Poland is to connect with a nation — and people — with which he has little experience. “Poland is a novelty for him, he doesn’t know it, he has never been,” Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a briefing last week.
The Pope is due to begin his visit on Wednesday by meeting Poland’s president and other government officials. He will also visit the former Nazi death camp in Auschwitz and hold a series of masses, including one service to mark the 1,050th anniversary of Christianity in Poland.
Warsaw has been at pains to stress the safety of the visit, following terror attacks across Europe this year. In Krakow, the city in southern Poland where the Pope’s trip is focused, residents have been told to walk to work and avoid closed roads, while security services have conducted house-to-house checks and made an inventory of foreign nationals living in the city.
Security concerns have also focused on a large field just outside Krakow, where close to 2m people from Poland and across the world are expected to gather for the Pope’s final mass on Sunday. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected to walk there from Krakow and sleep overnight on Saturday.
A leaked government report in April warned that the site, which is bounded by a motorway and rivers and contains a high-voltage electricity pylon, poses a “high risk for the life and health of people.” The government later said it had fixed the safety issues and declared the event location to be safe.
At meetings with foreign ambassadors ahead of the visit, Polish government officials said any heavy rain before or during the mass would also pose major problems in terms of accessing the site.
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