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John Paul II’s “nationalism”

To revisit John Paul II’s homilies and addresses during the Nine Days [of his visit to Poland in 1979], and especially his homily in Gniezno on June 3, is to learn important lessons for today about nation, nationalism, and patriotism. Karol Wojtyla was surely a Polish patriot; he had, after all, deliberately celebrated his first three Masses in the St. Leonard’s Crypt of Cracow’s Wawel Cathedral, surrounded by Polish heroes like King Jan III Sobieski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. At the same time, Wojtyla’s Polish and Cracovian roots, experience, and loyalties led him to an appreciation of the spiritual unity of the Slavic peoples, and indeed of the cultural unity of Europe.

John Paul II was not a “European” in some theoretical sense. As he made clear at Gniezno on June 3, 1979, he had come to a vision of Europe — whole and free, breathing with both its lungs, East and West — through his Cracovian and Polish experience, not despite that experience. Thus his Polish patriotism was not chauvinistic or xenophobic; it was open to those who were “other.” Poland, sometimes betrayed and too often ignored by the West, was, he insisted, woven into the tapestry of Europe. So were many other national experiences and stories. In that sense, it’s not hard to imagine John Paul II being sympathetic to contemporary critiques of the European Union’s tendency to level out national and cultural differences.