First in a series about Zimbabwean connections to Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified in Rome on May 1.
Zimbabwe is now home to a number of missionaries from John Paul II’s native Poland. RelZim.org talked to the first missionary of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) in Zimbabwe, Fr. Krystian Traczyk, and asked him to share the memories of his encounters with his compatriot.
“I was brought up in communist Poland. So we could not talk about politics. Basically it was all run the state, by one party. We were already going to church and we already felt that what we were doing at home, our beliefs had nothing to do with what they showed on the television or other media where the name of Jesus was never mentioned.”
When he was a teenager, Fr. Krystian and his peers were becoming aware of Bishop Wojtyŀa (who became Pope John Paul II in 1978) as a very outgoing person. “They would build huge cities without a church yet the people wanted a church.” In Nowa Huta (an industrial district of Kraków), as early as 1960, inhabitants began applying for a permit to build a church. In that year, violent street fights with riot-police erupted over a wooden cross, erected without a permit. The locals were supported by Bishop Karol Wojtyŀa and eventually a church called the Lord’s Ark was built. The complex was consecrated by Wojtyŀa in 1977.
“When I went to the seminary in 1973 I was becoming more aware of the Catholic hierarchy. I used to meet Karol Wojtyŀa (then already cardinal) during pilgrimages and various other church events. He was known as a good pastor and teacher: at the seminary we came to know some of his books.”
When three days before the death of John Paul I, Cardinal Wojtyŀa gave a homily at the Cathedral of Olsztyn during the funeral of the bishop under whose jurisdiction was Fr. Krystian’s seminary, they “couldn’t imagine what was to happen a few days later”.
“When he was elected it was a really amazing and everybody was surprised. Already at that time, the Church was becoming very strong, the bishops were very voiceful. So in a way, his election became a political factor. And eventually the authorities had to agree that the Pope comes.”
During the Pope’s first visit to Poland in 1979, the authorities were doing everything they could to stop the people from coming. This notwithstanding, they say 10 million people showed up. “I went to Gniezno with other seminarians. The whole atmosphere there was elated.”
Fr. Krystian recalls that John Paul II’s presence was felt throughout the 80s when Poland was going through a crucial transformation from a totalitarian society to a democratic one.
When Fr. Krystian moved to Zimbabwe in 1987, the people were already getting ready for the papal visit. Three parishes in his area of work (Plumtree, Empandeni and Embakwe) hired a train to get from Plumtree to Bulawayo to listen to the Pope. “There must have been two thousand people on the train. The train broke down on the way: it couldn’t pull all those people.”
In Bulawayo the Pope also had a meeting with the religious and priests. “I talked to him a little bit because there were not many Poles in Zimbabwe at that time. He was quite happy to talk to me, as well as I of course.” A year later Fr. Krystian had a chance to encounter John Paul II again. He was doing a Dei Verbum course at EMI (Edizione Missionaria Internazionale) in Rome and went to a personal audience to Castel Gandolfo.
“Ok you can talk about Pope John Paul II, but you can also talk about somebody like Archbishop Pius Ncube. Those people really represent the great things done within the Church.
We don’t do our own thing, we do something that others did before. So we just continue. And then if we can improve on that, that’s great.”