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Poland Mourns National Hero

While thousands of pilgrims flock to Rome, Polish mourners descend on John Paul II's hometown of Wadowice and Krakow to honor the passing of a native son and a national hero.


Honoring "the most important of the fathers of Poland's independence"

John Paul II, the first pope from eastern Europe to lead the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, was a source of pride for a country invaded and dominated for much of the last century by foreign powers and is credited with saving Poland from the Communists and enhancing the influence of the church.

"He was very important for Poland because he was like a road sign pointing the direction to our future," said Krzysztof Cibus, 39, a technician from Krakow in Wadowice Sunday. "He represented us abroad and gave pride and respect. But he was still one of us and at home, he worked to help us be free."

Karol Josef Wojtyla was born in 1920 and grew up in Wadowice with his father after his mother died when he was eight. Even though he moved to Krakow 18 years later, he often visited this town as archbishop and later as cardinal of Krakow and the region.

Click here for a map and country information on Poland

As one of leading members of the Polish church, he deftly maneuvered through the tricky politics of an officially atheist nation and built the church up in spite of the communist authorities who saw him as more acceptable than other church leaders who openly challenged them.

That changed when after two decades of sometimes tense negotiations, he convinced the communist regime to allow the construction of a church in the nearby "workers' paradise" suburb of Nowa Huta. The church opened in 1977.

A father of Polish independence

Trauer um Papst Johannnes Paul II. in Polen

People stand in front of a sea of burning candles at the bishop's residence in Krakow.

Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978. On his first visit home in 1979, millions of Poles came out to greet him. Many credit him as being a catalyst for the Solidarity trade union movement that emerged soon after his visit. Solidarity challenged the communist regime and helped lay the foundations for its demise.

In honor of his efforts in helping to bring down communism, Polish lawmakers adopted a declaration Tuesday calling him “the greatest authority of our times and the most important of the fathers of Poland’s independence. He helped rebuild Poland’s national identity.”

He is also considered the most influential figure on the Polish Catholic Church in the past century. After the fall of communism and with it the end of official atheism, the church was able to operate openly. John Paul II worked to build up the Catholic Church in Poland, says Jan Grabina, a professor of religious studies at Jagiellonian University.

"The pope deepened religion in Poland by creating theology departments at universities and religious schools all over Poland," he said. "Religious mass media in the form of Catholic TV and radio channels and newspapers started popping up. And with networks of religious youth groups appearing for the first time, he was successful in recruiting young people."

Papst Johannes Paul II. Vatikan Kerzen für das Oberhaput der katholischen Kirche Polen Wadowice

A woman lights a candle as people pray in a church in Wadowice, southern Poland, the Pope's native town.

A nation of orphans left behind

But now, the question remains, what will be the impact of his death on the church and society in Poland?

Shortly after Pope John Paul II died, Archbishop Franciszek Macharski of Krakow proclaimed Poland had become "a nation of orphans."

While that statement may seem overly dramatic, many say the pope's death will have a significant impact on the Catholic Church in Poland, just as his life did.

Roman Graczyk who wrote about the church in Poland for almost a decade for the Catholic Weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny and now for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, says the reaction to the pontiff's death in Poland is different than in western Europe.

Papst Johannes Paul II in Krakau

Pope John Paul II attends the Holy Mass at the God's Mercy Basilica in Krakow, southern Poland, Saturday, Aug.17, 2002.

"There is a feeling (in the West) that now 'the old guy is dead and here is our chance to change something,'" he said. "The problem here, instead, is that he so overshadowed our local clergy and spoke for them for 26 years, that now they don't know how to do anything for themselves."

Read more about how John Paul II's death will change the future of Poland

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