|Baptizing an infant|
On this day in 1948, Father Wojtyła arrived at his first parish in Niegowić, Poland. Here the future Pope found himself fifteen miles east of Krakow, at the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady.
Upon reaching the parish boundaries, Saint John Paul II knelt and kissed the ground, which is something that he learned from the story of St. John Vianney. Wojtyła continued to perform this gesture as he encountered new places throughout his life.
The parishioners he served were poor farmers, and Fr. Wojtyła himself had no electricity or running water. He lived with few and well-worn belongings, which garnered respect from the community he served. Parishioners provided some material things for him, but he was known to give even those things away to others in need.
As assistant pastor, the great saint was asked to provide religious education to young children. He often celebrated Mass, and like John Vianney, he saw himself as a "prisoner of the confessional." According to papal historian George Weigel, St. John Paul II understood the confessional to be the place "where priests encountered their people in the depths of their humanity, helping the person on the other side of the confessional screen to enter more deeply into the Christian drama of his or her own unique life. If priests stopped doing this, they’d become office managers or bureaucrats" (Witness to Hope, 92).
During his time as an assistant pastor, Saint John Paul II convinced his parishioners to raise money and build a new church. He also built up the parish ministry to engaged couples and newlyweds. He officiated thirteen weddings and baptized forty-eight babies during his time in Niegowić. He directed a play for the drama club he started, and he also organized a Living Rosary group.
Fr. Wojtyła focused especially on his younger parishioners, and this made him very unpopular with local political leaders:
The curate’s work with the parish young people—including songfests in the fields, discussion groups, and sports—drew the attention of the local communist ferrets. When they tried to intimidate one of Father Wojtyła’s youngsters, the priest told the teenager not to worry—"they’ll finish themselves off" (93).
St. John Paul II was only in Niegowić for eight months, but his presence as an assistant pastor made an impact there. His pastoral work also laid the foundation for many of the inspirational things he would later do as a Church leader.
On this small anniversary, let us remember the importance of the parish in our own lives. Let us especially remember to pray for our own pastors, that they may be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit and free from all temptation.
St. John Paul II, Pray for Us!
The stories in this post are from George Weigel’s Witness to Hope (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999; 88-93).