Blog: Action Pope! Representations of John Paul II

A year ago today Pope John Paul II was beatified in a ceremony at Saint Peter’s Square, just six years after his death. Last month I visited both John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice and the Archdiocesan Museum of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła in Kraków during a trip to Poland. With a principal research interest in the representation of saints, and how they may be remoulded to specific uses by the Church hierarchy and the ordinary faithful alike, I was struck by the way that John Paul – a saint in waiting who is yet to undergo full canonisation – was represented across these two sites. The former Karol Wojtyła was presented in two distinctive and divergent ways, raising questions about the process by which saints’ dominant popular image comes to be fixed and how quickly this can happen after their deaths.

Wadowice has a small museum at the house where John Paul was born (the displays are currently located in temporary premises while major renovation takes place at the site), while the neighbouring church (Wadowice’s Bazylika Mniejska) boasts the font in which he was baptised. This otherwise ordinary town has made great capital out of its connection to John Paul – a figure so significant to Poland’s modern history. The importance of John Paul to Wadowice’s tourist economy is clearly seen in the town’s many religious souvenir shops, as well as the ubiquitous ‘papal cream cake’ (kremówka papieska). This is in fact a type of pastry you will find elsewhere in Poland, but it was given this special title in Wadowice after John Paul reminisced about eating it as a child when he visited in 1999 – now every bakery and café in the town sells it. Kraków has just as strong a connection to the late pope. Appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków in 1958, he became the youngest bishop in Poland, and in 1964 he was promoted to Archbishop. Wojtyła retained that post until his election as pope in late 1978. Today the Archdiocesan Museum, housed in the former bishop’s palace where he lived for fourteen years, displays a collection of his personal effects, as well as a selection of gifts given to him by heads of state and pilgrims.

Two opposing representations emerged strongly at both these sites – one unsurprising, the other perhaps more unexpected. The first we might call ‘Action Pope’. This representation is best summed up by the image above – allegedly an image of John Paul on a clandestine skiing trip to the Italian Alps in 1984, one of many such trips that his personal secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, has claimed he made during his pontificate. The Archdiocesan Museum puts great emphasis on this characterisation of the Pope, displaying his twelve-foot kayak, full camping kit (everything from fold-away stools to mess tins), and skiing equipment. Wojtyła was of course well-known for his outdoorsy lifestyle and love of sport before becoming pope (it is interesting to note that the John Paul II Cup, an annual priests’ skiing competition, was instituted during his time as pope), and during his pontificate past photographs of him on camping trips, hiking or playing football gave him an image as an unusually down to earth and dynamic pontiff. The ‘Action Pope’ representation endures, and it isn’t hard to see why.

However, the other dominant representation of John Paul at these two sites seems less immediately expedient. We might call this representation the ‘Ailing Pope’ image – the older John Paul debilitated by Parkinson’s disease. While it is not at all surprising that the later sufferings of John Paul have been characterised as ‘Christ-like’ by the Church hierarchy (as early as 1998, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI  made the connection explicit, and he spoke of John Paul’s ‘witness in suffering’ in his beatification homily), the prevalence of the ‘Ailing Pope’ representation is intriguing. The fact that you could buy postcards with photographic images of a clearly gravely ill and suffering John Paul on them in the museum’s gift shop made this representation very much present here. Failing to appreciate the interest of these pieces of devotional material culture on the spot (probably the effects of too much kremówka papieska), I didn’t bring any of these postcards back with me, but this image, showing souvenir pictures on sale at another shop in Wadowice, is in a similar vein.  The strong emphasis on John Paul’s physical and mental devastation in his later years, and the fact that the ‘Ailing Pope’ image can apparently hold its own against the undeniably attractive ‘Action Pope’ representation, might tell us something about the nature of Polish popular devotional culture (and perhaps popular Catholic devotion generally) and its interest in the theme of suffering.

That Pope John Paul II’s popular image, at least at the sites of his pre-pontificate life, has become crystallised into at least these two distinctive representations in such a short time may be enlightening to those interested in how saints are represented and used. The fact that he had such a strong popular image in life no doubt partly accounts for the well-defined posthumous image we see here (it is certainly the case that the evolution of  a popular image for a pope-saint, famous and revered in his own lifetime, is very different from the same process in the case of a saint unknown in life and only gaining fame after their death), but it is noteworthy that his prominent roles as theologian, saint-maker and even international statesman who played a key role in the downfall of Communism seemed far less visible in both locations. While the official image of John Paul used at the beatification ceremony a year ago (and also appearing on prayer cards sold at the church in Wadowice) is more anodyne than either of the two representations discussed here, it is perhaps not the image that will come to dominate popular devotion to this future saint.

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