Poland grieves for 'Lolek' - poet, footballer and inspiration

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The Independent Online

For more than a billion Catholics he was God's representative on Earth, an unworldly, hard-to-fathom figure whose eminent role seemed to transcend his nationality, personality and past. But for the people of Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland where he was born almost 85 years ago, the late John Paul II was better known as Lolek.

Perhaps here, some 30 miles south of Krakow where he was to become archbishop, a sense of who Karol Wojtyla was and what made him tick as a human being, rather than as a cleric, still lingers.

Yesterday, in bright spring sunshine, Wadowice remembered a boy known affectionately to his friends as "Lolek the goalie" because of his love of football. The pitch where he used to play for the local team, apparently poorly, stood empty. There was no wailing, no hysteria and few tears. Instead, quietly intense grieving prevailed as the modest house where he was born and the onion-domed church where he used to pray up to three times a day became a focus for people's sorrow.

Pictures of Lolek stared down at mourners from a giant hoarding, reminding them that he too had lived his life like everyone else, before giving himself to the Church. A podgy baby swathed in white in his mother's arms; a crop-haired serious looking boy; a tousle-haired happy-looking teenager; a clean-cut priest in a dog-collar; and finally a white-robed Pope holding forth in front of an invisible crowd. It was here - for the first 18 years of his life - that the man who would become one of the papacy's longest-serving popes was forged.

Here, he developed a passion for amateur dramatics and poetry, football, skiing, hiking and, above all, for the church and for God. Here, he shone at school, apparently avoided any entanglements with the opposite sex, and pored over Polish history. Here, he grieved when his mother and brother died, leaving him to struggle along with his religious, militaristic father.

Yesterday, nervous-looking local officials placed an imposing bronze bust of the late Pope on a plinth in front of the church where he was an altar boy. Adorned by a single red rose and a black ribbon, people crowded round to gaze. Behind the bust, on the church wall was a reminder of Lolek's momentous path to Rome, picking out three significant events in his life; his birth in Wadowice in 1920, his appointment as bishop of Krakow in 1958 and his election to the papacy in 1978. A plaque attached to the house where he was born, number 7 Church Street, became one of many shrines.

Candles laid in the shape of hearts or crosses burnt brightly and black ribbons curled their way around the white and yellow flags, "the Pope's flag", which seemed to be everywhere. From inside the church, packed with mourners, the sound of stoic singing drifted across the square.

Sajdak Leon, a pensioner who had made a special visit to Wadowice, said local people had always admired the Pope's low-key style. "There is so much wisdom we can learn from him," he said, straightening with pride. "He achieved so much, including the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He did things calmly and modestly yet efficiently. We are all so proud that he was Polish."

At Krakow's ultra-modern Lagiewniki basilica 30 miles to the north - more spaceship than place of worship - the scene was very different, and of Karol Wojtyla, the local boy made good, there was little sign. As thousands of pilgrims prepared for a special mass, Lolek was overshadowed by the towering religious figure he was to become.

White symbolic jet-trails were traced in the sky and pilgrims shopped at stalls selling his books and tapes of his speeches, kissing a silver crucifix and praying. "It's tragic," said Anna, a pensioner. "My mother was dying recently. But his illness helped me understand and believe in mercy. There is a better place than here."

Yet even here there was a stark reminder of Lolek the man. Here, early in the Second World War, Lolek toiled in a quarry shovelling limestone, avoiding a potentially fatal trip to Nazi Germany.

Back in Wadowice the sadness was laced by the recognition that life must go on. Piotr Borys cradled his 18-month-old daughter, Mary, and said: "I've never been on a pilgrimage before but I feel this is the right place to be today. He said things which united people. But what happened is in the natural order of things. People are born and they die. It's just the way it is. It's sad, of course, but then look at my daughter. Things balance out in the end."