John Paul II still influential in Poland year after his death


WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Poles mark the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death Sunday with their beloved native son still very much a public presence, with some here even crediting him with continued influence in the strongly Roman Catholic country’s politics.

People flock to movies about him, the movement to make him a saint is steaming ahead, and Polish pilgrims flow steadily to the Vatican to visit his grave – and honor his successor and close supporter, Pope Benedict XVI.

John Paul will be remembered this weekend with Masses and other ceremonies throughout the country, including in Wadowice – the small southern town where he was born Karol Wojtyla in 1920 – and in Krakow, where he served as priest and archbishop. Benedict will address crowds in Krakow by video hookup.

Church officials said John Paul’s 27-year pontificate and support for the successful struggle against communism forged deep and lasting ties between an already Catholic nation and the Vatican. That’s especially true since Benedict has vowed to continue his legacy – and as a result seems regarded with more affection in Poland than in his native Germany.

“There were predictions that after the death of John Paul II, the church in Poland would collapse because we are so linked to this one person,” said Rev. Adam Boniecki, editor of the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. “But we see that this tie is much richer and deeper than simply the tie to this dead pope.”

“Before John Paul II, there wasn’t a tradition of Polish pilgrimages to the Vatican. But these haven’t diminished,” Boniecki said. “And this is a new phenomenon. They go to the tomb of John Paul but also to be near Benedict – in a sense to encounter both popes.”

Experts debate whether Polish society will change long-term without John Paul, the nation’s leading moral authority and inspiration for the pro-democracy Solidarity movement that helped overthrow communism in 1989. Some argue Poland will eventually become as secular as much of Western Europe, although they concede so far society is little changed since his death.

But there are also those who believe the election last fall of conservative, strongly pro-Catholic leaders such as President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was a sign that the nation, in its longing for moral authority, turned to leaders promising to preserve the values John Paul stood for.

Marcin Przeciszewski, head of the Catholic Information Agency, which reports on religion and politics, argued that a desire for moral values awakened by the pope’s death “definitely helped in the victory” of the Law and Justice party. The party won parliamentary and presidential elections on pledges to uphold pro-Catholic public policy – including one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws – and to preserve traditional family values.

The right “postulated that we want to build Poland based on certain values, meaning positive, deeper values, and that motto perfectly corresponded to the feelings from the period after the pope’s death,” Przeciszewski said.

Not everyone agrees.

Analyst Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, who heads the Institute of Public Affairs, argues that Law and Justice’s victory was merely “a reaction to bad management and corruption” under the previous center-left leaders.

“The rise of the right isn’t connected to the pope because Polish society itself isn’t becoming more oriented to the right, or more conservative,” Kolarska-Bobinska said. “I don’t see any change in values.”

Associated Press Writer Ryan Lucas in Warsaw contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-31-06 1423EST