This April late Pope John Paul II was declared to be a saint. When he died on April 2, 2005, I was in his home country Poland trying to tell a completely different story.
In the forest separating Poland and Belarus there were no more than 50 lynx in 2005. “We have a duty to save them for future generations,” said Dr. Krzysztof Schmidt, wielding a tracing device and trying to locate the nearest of them. Here in the Białowieża Forest, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain, it was mostly quiet. Birds and toads were chirping and calling. Our 4×4, stuck in forest mud, was revving its engine. The biologist and driver in our company was cursing mildly (or strongly – I don’t speak Polish). I’d never tried to trace lynx in a primeval forest bordering the last dictatorship in Europe before, but compared to what was happening elsewhere in Poland, this felt like normalcy.
I was in Poland to tell the story of how unchecked EU money left much to be desired when it came to environmental issues in the eager, eastern economies. However, my visit coincided with what was to become one of the largest media stories in the country since the revolution in 1989. Namely the death of the pope.
John Paul II, pope since 1978, was born Karol Józef Wojtyła in the Polish town of Wadowice and later served as Archbishop of Kraków before becoming the first non-Italian pope for close to 500 years. His first trip home to Poland after becoming pope led to the formation of the Solidarity movement and would begin the process of Communism’s demise in Eastern Europe, according to historians.
The pope’s death on April 2, 2005, was mourned all over the world of course. Still, the massive outpouring of grief in his home country was something special. It was the father of the modern Polish nation – and its greatest son – that had died. A man without whom, many believed, Poland to that day would still be under the control of a thriving Soviet Union. So the pope’s death paralyzed the country. Come Friday April 8, when the pope’s funeral took place in the Vatican City, hundreds of thousands gathered in the Polish capital of Warsaw to follow the proceedings through live video feed on giant screens throughout the city.
When the air raid sirens rang for three minutes to announce the start of the funeral, people fell to their knees in spontaneous prayer in the middle of intersections. Oceans of candles were lit, sparking candle fires that had to be put out by the fire brigade. I photographed for hours. At some point I sat down on a flight of stairs to rest my back and have a smoke. Suddenly I felt tears rolling down my face. Damn it, I thought, I’m an atheist from a protestant country. The pope held zero relevance for me while he was alive – now he was dead and I was stricken by a grief that wasn’t mine. That actually made me quite angry. I hate being emotionally manipulated, but I really couldn’t help it.
Massive public grief on a level such as this has of course an almost hypnotizing power. I’d never experienced anything like it. And I honestly didn’t believe I would experience anything like it again. At least not in my home country of Norway, where no public figure is held in such high regard that their death may elicit these kind of reactions. And what single event could possibly cause an entire nation to come together in sorrow? Then of course, six years later, the Utøya killings happened.