“I will ski again when they let me,” said Saint John Paul II, just moments after his papal inauguration in 1978. With a lifelong love for exploring the mountains by foot or skis, Karol Wojtyla, now Saint John Paul II, often shared his passion for encountering God in nature.
As a young priest in Poland, he was known to take his youth group on many hiking excursions and retreats. Combining catechesis with adventure and athleticism, he understood how the beauty of creation reveals the wonder of its Creator, instilling awe in its observers.
Saint John Paul II once commented to a reporter, ”I wish I could be out there somewhere in the mountains, racing down into a valley. It’s an extraordinary sensation.” And he did, only stopping at the age of 67 when his health prohibited it, nine years into his papacy.
Respect for nature and protection of the environment emerged as a recurring theme throughout his pontificate. Returning often to the mountainous peaks and trails of Poland, even when advised not to, these were his favorite places to experience the divinity of nature.
Zakopane is a ski resort town in southern Poland, located in a valley at the foot of the Tatras Mountains. The Tatras Mountains border Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the highest mountain peak in Poland is over 2,500 meters high.
Starting in 1962, and while Saint John Paul II was the bishop and cardinal of Kraków, he visited Zakopane for two weeks each winter to ski in the mountains, staying at a nearby convent. When the propriety of his skiing hobby was questioned due to his prominent position as cardinal, he replied, “It is unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly.”
In the Tatras Mountains, his favorite peak was Kasprowy Wierch that overlooks a steep cliff above Czechoslovakia. The Hala Gasienicowa valley was his favorite ski run because of its jagged terrain and winding paths. His daring skiing earned him the nickname “Daredevil of the Tatras” among those who skied with him.
Besides being a popular skiing destination, Zakopane is also home to the pilgrimage site the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. The shrine’s construction took place from 1987 to 1992, built as a sign of gratitude for Saint John Paul II’s survival and recovery after the papal assassination attempt made in 1981.
Saint John Paul II visited the shrine to consecrate it during his pilgrimage to Poland in 1997. In his homily at the consecration mass, he shared, “The history of this shrine is also linked with the event which took place in Saint Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. At that time I experienced mortal danger and suffering, but also the great mercy of God. By the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima my life was given back to me.”
Saint John Paul II frequently hiked this 890-meter peak, first named Jaworzyna, throughout his life starting in childhood. Part of the Beskidy Mountains surrounding his hometown Wadowice, the summit was renamed as Groń Jana Pawła II (Peak of John Paul II) in 1981.
The effort to rename the peak was led by Danuta and Stefan Jakubowski and their children, a family of mountain guides from Andrychow. In 1995, the Chapel of Our Lady Queen of the Mountains was built on the peak to commemorate Saint John Paul II’s 75th birthday. Funded by the Jakubowski family, the chapel has many symbolic elements and memorabilia from his life.
The structure’s dimensions were chosen to represent the month and day of the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt: 5 meters in width and 13 meters in length. The chapel hosts the armchair that Saint John Paul II used during the 1995 mass he celebrated at the Kaplicowka Hill in Skoczow. To represent his love of nature, the altar has the inscription, “There are three of us: God, mountains, and me.”
Pilgrimages to Poland often center on the life of Saint Pope John Paul II, with visits to the historical and spiritual sites where he lived and worshipped from Wadowice to Kraków. Touring through Zakopane, scaling the Tatras Mountains, or climbing up Groń Jana Pawła II are the best ways to experience this saint’s spirituality through nature.
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Originally published in USA Today.