By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 18, 2013
ATLANTA—Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynska lived with her family in Poland under the communist regime when the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected as Pope John Paul II in 1978.
His election gave people in his native land a new sense of what was possible.
“That was a sign that there would be a big change,” she said.
His visit to his homeland in 1979 lifted the spirits of the country.
His words—“Do not be afraid”—and his message from Victory Square, Warsaw, changed the country, she said. Gurtler-Krawczynska remembers how his words left people in tears and with hope.
“Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land,” she quoted him praying.
“He gave us moral support. We all cried,” said the retired Emory professor and a leader at the Blessed John Paul II Polish Catholic Apostolate in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Blessed John Paul II was one of the longest serving pontiffs in church history when he died in 2005. His travels brought the papacy to millions of the faithful. Scholars credit his defense of human rights for supporting the Solidarity trade union in his native land that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Now he will be canonized as a saint.
Gurtler-Krawczynska said, “I wasn’t surprised.”
At his death and funeral, “People were shouting ‘Santo subito’ (sainthood now). He had incredible influence on the people, on the world. The young people came to him,” she said.
Some 150 people worship each Sunday at the Blessed John Paul II Polish Apostolate, located in Lawrenceville. Mass is celebrated in Polish with a priest from the Society of Christ, a religious order that serves Polish expatriates around the world.
The faith community treasures a first-class relic of Blessed John Paul II. The relic consists of several drops of blood on a tiny piece of cloth sent to the Polish Apostolate by the late pope’s personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland. Four vials of blood were drawn from Pope John Paul during the final stage of his illness by his personal physician, in case a transfusion was needed. No transfusion was needed, and after the pope’s death on April 2, 2005, two of the vials went to Cardinal Dziwisz.
The day of the canonization will be a huge celebration, she said. “We’re waiting for what will be the date. That is the whole excitement.”
Gurtler-Krawczynska met the pope in 2000 at the Vatican. She said it was an “incredible moment. You are in front of a special, holy person.” She spoke with him in Polish and asked his blessing on the effort to draw a Polish priest to serve in Atlanta.
Six months later, the community had a priest and weekly Mass was being celebrated in Polish. (She laughed as she told the story because it happened shortly after meeting Pope John Paul II, but it took a couple of years of work to get to that moment.)
“He was a poet, a philosopher, a professor of theology, writer, a very educated person. He was a sportsman, skier, connecting well with young people,” she said. “For me, he is also a poet, because I like his poetry.”
He engaged with journalists and artists, he came out of the Vatican to be with people. His travels shaped the church by spotlighting its universal reach. He is the most traveled pope in history.
“By his traveling, he connected the world. He was opening his arms to, as he said, his older brothers (the Jewish community). He was kissing the ground. He was humble. He was opening his arms to the whole world,” said Gurtler-Krawczynska.
One of his character traits she admired was his strong defense of human rights, the rights of the unborn.
“There is right, there is not right. Somebody has to defend that. He did that,” Gurtler-Krawczynska said.
Deacon Gerald Zukauckas and his wife, Sharon, are thrilled to see the church take this step. The couple twice attended events with Pope John Paul II, once when he blessed her at a Vatican general audience and then again in Lourdes, France, in 2004. There the Zukauckases stood overnight to get a prime viewing spot when the pope celebrated Mass. Afterward, they traveled throughout Europe in an impromptu pilgrimage to sites associated with the pope.
They said the pope changed their lived faith, making them missionary in their zeal for the faith. He gave them “the courage to live it and the enthusiasm to share it,” Sharon Zukauckas said.
In the fall, they are heading to Rome, Italy, to mark their 40th wedding anniversary. They intend to pray at the pope’s tomb, although they hope their visit may coincide with his canonization.
“He opened our hearts to our faith and enriched it. He led us to Christ. To me, that’s the wonder of Blessed John Paul,” said Deacon Zukauckas, who serves at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
The deacon said he often turns to the encyclicals and homilies of the pope for inspiration and insight as he prepares his own homilies to share with the congregation.
“It is such a wealth of beautiful reflections and thought that reflects the depth of his intellect and his spiritual depth,” he said.
The deacon said he is also moved by the pope’s humanity. “The youth loved him, even if they didn’t want to hear his message all the time,” he said, adding the pope had a “pastoral nature” to his ministry.
Sharon Zukauckas said a new saint can boost people’s spirits for those losing faith.
Saints are “for us to have faith, if we are losing faith. We feel Blessed John Paul is already a saint in heaven. We feel this is recognizing that.”
She said it is a special moment to celebrate the lives of the two saint popes together because their lives as church leaders are intertwined.
Blessed Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council while Blessed John Paul II, with his long pontificate, implemented the vision of the council, she said.
“It was the 27 years of work that carried it out,” she said.
“He was a man of prayer and faithfulness,” she said. “For us, he’s larger than life.”