I fell in love with Krakow when I was teaching English in central Europe from 2002–2004. Part of it was the timing of my first visit. In Prague, where I was living, the Soviet-era project of state-sponsored atheism was largely successful. In Krakow, the Catholic Church had resisted the story told by communism, insisting instead that religion was not something that could be banished to the private sphere and that all humans had inherent dignity by virtue of their being created in God’s image. So when I arrived during Holy Week of 2003, the festive and loving atmosphere in Krakow helped to bring about the spiritual refreshment I needed.
Even though I am not a Catholic, the city had such an impact on me that I returned about six months later. On that visit, my curiosity about the city led me to buy a biography of John Paul II in a bookstore on the main square. John Paul II had been the archbishop of Krakow when he was elected pope, and I wanted to learn more about the relationship between the man and the city.
I wish that City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow had been available then. George Weigel, the author of Witness to Hope, a massive biography of John Paul II, has written (along with Carrie Gress and Stephen Weigel) a wonderful introduction to the city and its surrounding area that focuses on sites that are important to the life of Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become pope. The book is more of a hagiography than a biography; it is written for pilgrims who are looking for edification rather than those who are merely interested in gathering facts. The chapters progress roughly chronologically according to the life of John Paul II; they begin in Wadowice, the small town outside Krakow where he was raised, and end in Zakopane, the town in the Tatras Mountains where a church was built in 1997 out of gratitude for his surviving an assassination attempt 16 years earlier. Each chapter comes in two parts: First, Weigel writes about the significance of a particular place for the life of John Paul II; then, Carrie Gress gives more historical information about the place. Throughout, Stephen Weigel’s black-and-white photographs show what each place looks like; the only color photos are in the middle.
The older I get, the less interested I am in traveling to various places just to have fun and see interesting sights—I am more interested in pilgrimages. Of course, as a Protestant, I have a different idea of pilgrimage than many Catholics might. My idea of pilgrimages is less about going to places that are regarded as “holy” and more about going to places that have particular significance in world history or in my own history. In that sense, I do agree with Weigel when he writes that “read as His-story, history comes into focus as the history of salvation: a history that begins not with randomness but with purpose; a history that ends not with oblivion but with a great, cosmic, eternal party, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, described in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Revelation” (117). While I might question whether there are particular places that should be regarded as holier than others, I agree that traveling to and reflecting in particular places can foster a greater understanding of and connection to the salvation history that lies behind and within world history.
I normally end reviews by saying who I would recommend this to, and this is a difficult one to recommend broadly. The main target audience seems to be Catholics who will soon be traveling to Krakow. But there may be other Christians who, like me, have visited Krakow and want to know how it came to be such a special place, or who want to know more about the relationship between John Paul II and his “beloved Krakow.”
Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.