Sunday’s canonisation of Pope John Paul II will carry a particular resonance in his native Poland – and especially in his hometown of Wadowice.
This is where Karol Wojtyla was baptised, where he went to school, where he played in school plays and where he served for a mass as an altar boy every day.
The Wojtyla family lived modestly, with their main source of income being the salary of the father, an officer in the military.
His mother, who took odd jobs as a tailor, died when he, the future pope, was 9 years old, and his elder brother followed 3 years later.
The home in Wadowice where the future pope grew up is now a museum visited by thousands of pilgrims. Refurbished in time for the canonisation, its re-opening earlier this month was attended by dignitaries including Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Many Polish people associate John Paul with inspiring the end of Moscow-imposed Communist rule.
“The pope … was a spiritual leader, but also a political leader. There’s no doubt that we ejected the Communists from power thanks to the fact that he mobilised us,” said Leokadia Tylek, visiting Wadowice.
Fifty kilometres to the northeast, Krakow is where John Paul served as priest and then archbishop before becoming pope.
Once installed in the Vatican, he always made sure to come back to the city during visits to Poland.
Surveys by the regional tourist board show about 15 percent of the nearly 10 million visitors to Krakow each year come for religious purposes, mostly associated with the late pope.
“He always protested ‘I don’t work miracles – it’s God who works miracles’. And we’ve been asking him for prayer and that prayer turned out to be very effective, in life and after (his) death,” remembers John Paul’s former assistant, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.
Some among Poland’s 38 million population openly challenge the former pontiff’s legacy.
Tadeusz Bartos, a philosophy professor at the Academy of Humanities in Pultusk, near Warsaw, says most Poles are so keen to embrace him as a national hero that they see any criticism as “equal to tarnishing sanctity, spitting on the altar”.
He noted the pope’s rigid opposition to condom use at a time when AIDS was rampant, allegations he did not do enough to tackle child sex abuse involving priests, and he accused him of gagging free debate within the faith.
“John Paul II brought winter to the Church,” said Bartos.
The Polish parliament has voted to express its gratitude and esteem for the late pope – although some politicians opposed the move, arguing that the church and state should be kept separate.