KALWARIA ZEBRZYDOWSKA, Poland—If Pope John Paul II had a special spiritual place, a retreat and sanctuary from the pressures of leading the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, it was a small side chapel in a 17th-century basilica in rural Poland.
The Kalwaria basilica, perched high on a wooded hillside 20 miles from the pope's hometown, adjoins a Franciscan monastery in a complex of churches, gardens and avenues that resembles Jerusalem.
Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, was 9 years old when his father first brought him to the church. His mother had just died—this was 1929—and his father, a retired army sergeant, steered him into a tiny chapel that held a painting of the Miracle of the Virgin Mary.
"Your mother has died," Karol Wojtyla Sr. told his son. "Mary is your mother now."
Father Augustin, 89, a Franciscan priest who met the future pope when they were both studying theology in Krakow, recounted the story the day after the pope died.
"Mary took care of the Holy Father for almost 80 years," the white-haired, bright-eyed Augustin said. "This was an important place for the Wojtyla family for many generations. Whenever they had troubles, they climbed the hill to Kalwaria."
Augustin has served at Kalwaria on and off for nearly 60 years. Wojtyla often came to the chapel to pray, first as a seminarian and a priest, then as a bishop and cardinal, and later as pope.
Wojtyla mostly made pilgrimages to Kalwaria in times of conflict, stress and doubt. He'd stay overnight in a small bedroom in the monastery, and sometimes he'd pray all night beneath the painting of Mary.
He was praying in the chapel in 1978 when he got a late-night phone call from the Vatican telling him that Pope John Paul I had died after 33 days in office. Wojtyla hurried to Rome, where he was elected pope.
On another visit, the Kalwaria priests were beside themselves with worry because the pope took only one small sip of the coffee they served him. Only later did they discover that the coffee grinder was full of black pepper.
But the pope never uttered a word of complaint.
Father Augustin said Wojtyla, even as pontiff, mixed easily with both young and elderly priests at the monastery. He greatly outranked all the Kalwaria priests, but he always bent to kiss the ring of the leader of the order when he visited.
When young priests brought him the occasional late-night cognac—the snifter rattling on its saucer because of their nervousness—the pope never failed to ask them to sit and have a sip with him.
"That's the way he was—open and caring," Augustin said.
"The grief we're seeing now, the crying and sadness, is the result of him and his personality. It's the accumulation of all his work since his early days as a young priest."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE-RETREAT
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