KRAKOW, Poland — Pope Francis is a pastor of powerful gestures. Tomorrow, when he arrives here for World Youth Day, he should make a prolonged, prayerful and purposeful visit to the tombs in Wawel Cathedral, first among them King Jan III Sobieski.
The scourge of Islamic State violence marred the first day of WYD here, when the news arrived that Father Jacques Hamel had been beheaded in his parish church in France — during the celebration of the Eucharist, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz stressed at the opening Mass, conveying his shock at the bloody blasphemy and sacrilege of this latest martyrdom. As Providence would have it, tomorrow afternoon, the Holy Father is scheduled to meet with the Polish bishops at the cathedral, in the crypt of which King Jan III Sobieski is buried. There is no figure in European history more associated with righteous resistance to aggressive Islamic expansion that the 17th-century king of Poland, who defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Upon his victory, Sobieski was hailed as the savior of Christendom, but he deflected the honor, expressing himself in lapidary Latin: Veni; vidi; Deus vincit! (“I came; I saw; God conquered!”)
Pope Francis need not say anything. But to visit the tomb of the historic hero of resistance to aggressive Islam would speak volumes. It could not be easier to do, as Sobieski is buried alongside other heroes of Polish history. Indeed, his sarcophagus is in St. Leonard’s Chapel, in the place of honor across from the altar where a newly ordained Father Karol Wojtyła chose to offer his first holy Mass on All Souls’ Day 1946. Pope Francis, coming to Kraków in part to honor the great “Pope of Mercy,” could venerate the altar of St. John Paul’s first Mass before visiting Sobieski’s tomb, where he might offer a silent prayer that something akin to the spirit of 1683 might reawaken in Europe.
It would be salutary for WYD pilgrims, to say nothing of the world press, to consider why John Paul would have chosen St. Leonard’s crypt, in the presence of King Jan III Sobieski’s remains, for his first Mass.
It was because Karol Wojtyła was both a Christian disciple and a Polish patriot, and he considered Polish history to be a drama of fidelity amid difficult trials. There is no place where Polish history is more tangible than in Kraków, the ancient and royal capital of the Polish nation. The heart of Kraków is Wawel Hill, the site of the royal palace and the cathedral. The crypt of the cathedral, repository of the royal sarcophagi and resting place of the heroes of Polish history, is a place of national memory.