Pope John Paul II and Saint Stanislaw

 By Moina Arcee, Jul 23, 2013 Edited August 30 2018


Vistula River

The Vistula is Poland’s version of the Mississippi River. It rolls wide and long through the heart of Poland, then empties into the frigid Baltic Sea on Poland’s northern border, the only coastline of the landlocked nation. The Vistula passes through Cracow, Karol Wojtyla’s birthplace of Wadowice, and finally, past Auschwitz – a Germanized name for a town once known as Oswiecim, which in Polish means “a place to be made holy.”

Over the centuries the Vistula has witnessed deeds both heroic and dastardly, by men both saintly and criminal. In 1079 the great river was the site of the martyrdom of Poland’s patron saint, Stanislaw, Bishop of Cracow. Stanislaw was born of noble parents in 1030. He became bishop of Cracow in 1072, during the reign of Polish King Boleslaw Smialy (Boleslaw the Bold). On April 11, 1079 Bishop Stanislaw was on the banks of the Vistula at Skalka (“Little Rock”). While celebrating Mass he was killed by a sword blow to the head. The killer may have been a swordsman hired by Boleslaw, but more than one account has the King himself delivering the death blow. In either case the assassin, not content with doing the bishop to death, proceeded to quarter the body and cast Stanislaw’s remains into the Vistula. All that remained was the bishop’s sundered head and a blood spattered altar.

Death of Bishop Stanislaw

Like many Poles, Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) revered Stanislaw and was fascinated by his martyrdom. During his professorship at Poland’s LublinUniversity in the 1950’s Wojtyla organized marathon debating sessions on Stanislaw with University historians.1 The consensus in Poland is that Boleslaw the Bold was a warmongerer who exhausted Poland with his bloody feuds, and exhausted himself consorting with concubines. After admonishing him in vain, Stanislaw excommunicated the King. The Bold One avenged this dishonor by point of sword. Outraged Poles rose against Boleslaw, who fled to a Benedictine monastery in neighboring Hungary and spent the rest of his life doing penance for his sins.

Stanislaw’s head was transferred up the Vistula River to the Royal Cathedral near Wawel Castle, where annually the relic is carried in a solemn procession from Wawel to Skalka. A tradition developed whereby Polish kings received their crowns and swore their oaths at Stanislaw’s tomb. The martyred bishop became Poland’s patron saint after Pope Innocent IV canonized Stanislaw in 1253.

The cult of St. Stanislaw grew, and became a fixture in the national consciousness of Poles during their persecutions by tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Communist Russia. During these dark decades the Poles and the Church – particularly Primate Stefan Wyszynski – seemed a living embodiment of the martyred Stanislaw. Tsarist Russia, the Nazis, and the Communists, on the other hand, were the epitome of cruel state power, as symbolized by Boleslaw the Bold.

There were two important consequences of the lengthy foreign occupations of Poland. The first was Polish messianism, expressed most vividly by romantic, revolutionary Polish poets of the 19th century. They believed Poland’s suffering was in imitation of Christ, and like Christ, Poland should anticipate a glorious resurrection. Moreover, Poland’s redemption would be no mere national event. Poland suffered for the sins of all mankind, and thus the redemption of Poland would redeem all humanity, all nations, indeed, the entire world.2

The second consequence of Poland’s persecution was a fusing of the Church with Polish ethnicity, culture, and society. The Church and the Poles sustained and strengthened each other against their common enemies. This process birthed a new entity called the Narod (Polish Nation), a term signifying the intimate relationship between Poles and the Catholic Church. The Narod became the dominant national consciousness, symbolized by the cult of St. Stanislaw.

statue of St. Stanislaw

Despite the prominence of Stanislaw’s cult, we know very little about the circumstances of his death, other than that he died from a violent blow to the head. This proof came courtesy of Stanislaw’s successor, Cracow Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who in 1967 created a forensic commission to determine the saint’s cause of death. The skull was removed from its ornate, solid gold reliquary in the Royal Cathedral and subjected to modern science. The conclusion was that the bishop died from the “violent use of a sharp metal instrument.”3

An Ambiguous Saint

The ambiguity of Stanislaw’s martyrdom turns on the personality of Boleslaw, and the religious and political turmoil in the eleventh century. Pope St. Gregory VII. centralized the Church’s authority in the papacy and safeguarded it with the axiom: “The Supreme Pontiff can be judged by no one.” Gregory fought against the secularization of the Church by forbidding state investiture of bishops. German Emperor Henry V refused the reform and Gregory excommunicated him. In the resulting furor Boleslaw became Gregory’s ally and imposed papal reforms on a resistant Polish Church.

Boleslaw had political reasons for opposing Germany The resistance of Polish clergy appears based on a dislike of Boleslaw, loyalty to Henry IV (Germany had founded the Church in Poland), and opposition to Gregory’s ban on married clergy.4 Bishop Stanislaw opposed Boleslaw too, but it is unclear why. It is unlikely Stanislaw approved of married clergy. Popular legend has it he disapproved of Boleslaw’s immorality, but there is no factual evidence that Stanislaw actually excommunicated Boleslaw.

There is evidence that Boleslaw convened the Royal Court, which found Stanislaw’s “pro-German” sentiments treasonous. Boleslaw appears to have had a temper, so perhaps the court gave the King the verdict he wanted. If Stanislaw was in fact “pro-German”, this may mean he sympathized with Henry IV’s dispute against Pope Gregory and Boleslaw. This makes sense since Stanislaw himself was made bishop by Germany’s Emperor, as were all Poland’s bishops and clergy at the time. And although Gregory was later canonized, during his reign he was widely viewed as a political meddler and a tyrant. Perhaps Bishop Stanislaw shared the prevailing opinion.

Or perhaps Stanislaw’s apparent sympathy for Germany was used as a pretext by Boleslaw, who was aware that Stanislaw had joined a bloc of Polish nobles who were opposed to the King’s policies. In any event the bishop was convicted of treason and his punishment, loss of limbs, was duly executed in 1079, apparently by Boleslaw himself. Contrary to popular legend, however, Boleslaw was not immediately chased out of the country by outraged Poles. He remained for over two years. When he left for Hungary in 1081, it was not to don sackcloth and ashes, but to seek military assistance for another war. Unfortunately for Boleslaw the Bold, “by his haughtiness and unexampled arrogance he antagonised the Hungarians. After a short stay there, he came to an end which was believed to have been violent.”5

An Ambiguous Pope?

Not all Poles prefer Stanislaw over Boleslaw. The messianic poet Wyspianski wrote a play, Boleslaw the Bold, wherein one of the actors, lamenting the loss of Polish kingdom, asserts: “The king remains the Bold; he will return some day…May that coffin (Stanislaw’s) be shattered by the king…Let the nations’ “boldness” strike its “saintliness”!6 Only in Poland could Wyspianski, whose first name was Stanislaw, be buried in the basilica where his sainted namesake was slain.

The dialogue continued in 1941, when in Nazi occupied Poland the Rhapsodic Theater performed King-Spirit, a play about Stanislawa and Boleslaw. The theater’s leading actor, a 21 year old named Karol Wojtyla, chose to play not Stanislaw, but Boleslaw the Bold. He portrayed the king as a ruler who began with the best of intentions, lost his way, and ended his life in bitterness and contrition, a repentant fugitive from justice who could not right his wrongs, only lament them…  Against the skepticism of his colleagues, Wojtyla insisted that this interpretation captured the essence of Boleslaw.

Karol Wojtyla, thespian

Yet Wojtyla’s conscious affinity was always with St. Stanislaw. The martyred bishop “was a man of great importance to me,” stated John Paul II. The former Pope’s biographers note that “Apart from Christ, the Virgin, and the Apostles, the Christian example most often cited by the Polish pope was St. Stanislaw.”7 This pride of place preceded Wojtyla’s election to the papacy. Upon becoming Stanislaw’s successor as Archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla had a recurring argument with Poland’s Communist government for banning the traditional yearly procession between Skalka and Stanislaw’s tomb in Wawel. Archbishop Wojtyla’s quarrel was uncharacteristic, for he did not have a reputation for provoking Communists.

In 1972 Cracow celebrated the millenium anniversary of St. Stanislaw’s episcopal ordination. In his sermon Cardinal Wojtyla asserted that Stanislaw’s relatively short seven year career as bishop nevertheless “left its imprint forever on the destinies of the Church, (and) in the destinies of the motherland”,8 as he refers to Poland. As 1972 was also the 10 year anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council, Wojtyla further instructed his listeners that “a most fitting tribute to the martyred bishop would be increased devotion to the implementation of the decrees of Vatican II.”9

When Cardinal Wojtyla left Cracow for the conclave gathering in Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul I, he told well wishers essentially what he said in 1962, when as a bishop he left for Vatican II: “I am leaving the tomb of St. Stanislaw for the tomb of St. Peter…their greatness is comparable, they complement each other…”10 He looked forward to returning to Cracow to plan the 900th anniversary celebration of Stanislaw’s martyrdom, scheduled for May, 1979.

His unexpected election to the papacy did not cause John Paul II to reconsider his intention of attending Stanislaw’s jubilee in Poland. A week after his election John Paul told his fellow Poles: “I very much want to come to you on the 900th anniversary of St. Stanislaw…I trust that this jubilee will bring a renewal of our faith and Christian morality because we see in St. Stanislaw the patron of moral order in Poland…”11 Whatever his real virtues were, in death Stanislaw was proving to be a versatile saint.

Although he was not allowed to preside over the anniversary celebrations for St. Stanislaw, during his nine day visit to Poland the new Pope frequently evoked Poland’s patron saint. His audiences understood the references perfectly. St. Stanislaw was a code name that embodied and encouraged the continual resistance of the Narod – the Polish Nation/Church – to oppressive Communist rule. John Paul mentioned Stanislaw when he landed at the Warsaw airport; when he visited Auschwitz; and when he stood near the VistulaRiver, at the spot where Stanislaw was murdered. In words thick with emotion, yet perfectly calibrated, John Paul exhorted Poles to “carry into the future the whole of the experience of history that is called ‘Poland’. It is a difficult experience, perhaps the most difficult in the world, in Europe, and in the Church. Do not be afraid of the toil; be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity (cowardice).”12


Pope in Poland, 1979

By the end of his dramatic return to the motherland, no one could accuse John Paul of being thoughtless or pusillanimous. In a virtuoso performance the new Pope firmly exhorted his countrymen to resist Communism, yet did not provoke violence, either by Poles or Communists. As one biographer put it, “”the pope kept up the drumbeat of his message of religious faith and patriotism – and of his devotion to St. Stanislaw.”13

In subsequent visits to Poland, and in his many dealings with Polish Communists and Solidarity leaders, John Paul continued his “horizontal dialogue” about the dignity of man. Unlike previous popes, who condemned Communism as a godless, “intrinsically perverse” secret society, John Paul II believed Communism would evolve into a legitimate form of government, and his attempts to stimulate this evolution consumed more than a decade of his pontificate. When the Communists left Poland, the Narod and the world credited John Paul for the apparent downfall of Communism. Nine centuries after being slain, it appeared Stanislaw had finally vanquished Boleslaw.

If so, it was a pyrrhic victory, similar in its transience to John Paul’s triumphal visits to the motherland. Free at last to enjoy their dignity, Poland created a new constitution that firmly separated Church and state. Poles also liked liberal abortion laws and Western consumerism. In 1995 Polish President Lech Walesa, the former leader of Solidarity, was defeated by a purported ex-Communist, Aleksandr Kwasniewski. Like the Pope, Kwansiewski was charismatic, comfortable with television, and quite concerned about the dignity of man. A kinder, gentler Boleslaw now promised prosperity for Poland. Stanislaw was forsaken, and a new Narod arose.

The Pope was disappointed. Democracy appeared not to have elevated his countrymen’s dignity one whit. He began condemning what he called a “culture of death”: the immorality and materialism of Western culture that had corrupted the motherland, and tainted Poland’s – or the Pope’s – apparent victory over Communism. He visited Poland for the last time. Now aged and frail, he raised his voice against his people. They listened sullenly. He no longer had their ear, and his invocations of Stanislaw fell flat. John Paul, who had championed religious liberty nearly his entire life, now decried the Polish separation of Church and state as a “means (of) introducing atheism into state and society.”14

* * *

The Vistula continues to flow, unimpeded by the tempests of men. Each year a procession is made to the spot on the great river where centuries ago a Catholic bishop was killed. No one in the procession knows exactly why Stanislaw was killed. Pope John Paul II has moved on to his great reward. As a young actor Karol Wojtyla projected good intentions and Christian remorse onto the character of Boleslaw the Bold – an interpretation that doesn’t fit the Boleslaw of history. As pope, he projected good intentions and unalterable nobility onto his countrymen, and even onto Communism. These interpretations don’t square with the facts either.

Like the Narod, it is difficult to see where St. Stanislaw ends and Karol Wojtyla began. Did Pope John Paul II have such a deep, mystical connection  with Stanislaw that we simply cannot appreciate the profundity of his references to the saint? Or was St. Stanislaw simply a pseudonym for Karol Wojtyla? In the final years of his long pontificate, the pope knelt with difficulty. Yet he continued to pray, and in his weakness was held, perhaps, in the arms of an ambiguous saint.



1. Pope John Paul, The Biography, Tad Szulc, Scribner, 1995, pp. 35-36.

2. The Mind of John Paul II, Origins of his thought and Action, George Huntston Williams, The Seabury Press, 1981, p. 42-47.

3. Szulc, op. cit., p. 36.

4. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1903, Volume 8, Poland, p. 183.

5. The Cambridge History of Poland, Cambridge at the University Press, 1950, Volume I, p.41-42.

6. Williams, op. cit., p. 28.

7. His Holiness, Pope John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Times, Carl Bernstein and Marco Polito, Doubleday, 1996, p. 395.

8. Szulc, op. cit., p. 33.

9. Williams, op. cit., p. 233.

10. Szulc, op. cit., p. 18.

11. Ibid., p. 291.

12. Williams, op. cit., p. 314.

13. Szulc, op. cit., p. 306.

14. Bernstein and Politi, op. cit., p. 492.


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