The Pontiff Plague

Krakow got a new statue of John Paul II yesterday. Forgive me if I’m not overly excited. Effigies of the Polish Pope are now so common that its hard to pop down to the shops these days without stubbing your toe on one. There are now 228 known public statues of Jan Pawel in Poland (this guy keeps a record). The Pope only died three years ago. According to a calculation I just pretended to do, if the production of Pope statues continues at this rate there will be more marble John Pauls than actual Polish people by about 2025. If that many pontifical figurines were laid end to end they would reach from here to the Vatican, not to mention forming a major tripping hazard. The Global Climate Thingy will almost certainly be worsened in some way I can’t be bothered to invent. Clearly, something must be done.

The only image of the new John Paul II statue I could find.

In classic Polish fashion the erection of the latest graven Pope was not without administrative difficulties. According to my, undoubtedly poor, understanding of last night’s news the church wanted to erect a John Paul outside the cathedral on Wawel hill, but ran into endless bureaucratic difficulties with the city authorities trying to secure permission. In the end they put it up anyway, but on a temporary wooden plinth so that it isn’t technically ‘built.’ They should have put it on wheels. I think there’s a great future in mobile papal statues. The devout could tow them behind their cars and underground Pope-installing guerillas could wheel them into prominent locations under the cover of darkness. It’s a potential growth area in these hard economic times. I’d mention my idea for giant inflatable popes if I didn’t fear straying even further into potentially disrespectful waters.

A John Paul II colossus bestriding the land

I have nothing against John Paul II, the Polish Pope was a great guy, seriously. According to every source I haven’t bothered to read he was a genuinely good person who had a genuinely positive effect on the lives of millions of individuals. That’s pretty much the definition of a good guy in my book.

Imagine that on wheels; heathens would stand little to no chance.

The Poles love the Polish Pope, and not without good reason. If I was Polish I’d love him too. Even as a benighted non-Pole I have a large soft spot for him. I saw him once in Warsaw and he struck me as the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind delegating a whole lot of moral baggage onto, if I’d had the luck to be born catholic.

I’m not convinced this looks anything like him.

Kitsch is the word that springs, unfortunately, to mind. You have to wonder what John Paul would have thought of all this idolatry, and you have to conclude that it wouldn’t have been positive.

Now that’s just scary…

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49 thoughts on “The Pontiff Plague

  1. guest says:

    Yes they are gruesome. And I am sure JPII would hate them, too.

    This is pure kitch. There are some “wanna be artists” who make lots of money with this crap.

    and the “mohair beret” women pay for ot….

  2. scatts says:

    That last one looks like a scene from “Harry Potter and the Evil Pope”! :)

  3. Starke says:

    Do not mock the Nazgul Pope. He made no appearance in Harry Potter. :P

  4. Ewa says:

    I am sure The Pope wouldn’t like it at all.
    He would be much happier if he could see that people just fallow his words.

    I think most Polish people always loved JPII in a very naive and chilidish way – they were just proud he was polish and they found him cool (because of his jokes and behaviour) but they never really listened to him – they just pretended they did.
    I think all these monuments it is just the sign of this very childish and naive love to the pope: More monunents we have, more love to the pope we show. Unfortunately it is just very shalow.

  5. Michael Farris says:

    I think Ewa sums it up very, very well (if a little more harshly than I would).

  6. island1 says:

    guest: I knew could rely on you to dig out the pictures :) Thanks.

    Ewa: I understand your point, and I’m sure you’re right. It’s the fate of popular and loved figures to be adored rather than listened too, Jesus seems to suffer from a similar problem: I’m sure he mentioned something about loving neighbors, but I don’t recall anything about putting statues of his mum up all over the place.

    On the other hand, it does represent something of John Paul’s profound impact on Poland, whether understood fully or not. Future generations will be in no doubt that he was an important man for millions of people, assuming there’s room for any future generations between all the statues.

  7. guest from boat-town says:

    According to wikipedia there are 892 towns in Poland and you write that there are only 228 statues? I live in Lodz and I’m sure that we have 2 or 3 monuments. In Pabianice (which is in lodzkie) there are 2 as well.
    I can see one from my office window and I often see some ladies lighting candles or praying/crying in front of it.
    I do not agree with catholic church’s rules and I think that banning condoms is stupid. I don’t understand priests who tell people that they should do this or that when they don’t have to support their families and they will always have food and shelter. However, I was proud that a guy known for his kindness and wisdom was from Poland.
    I would give this money to some poor orphans, though.

  8. island1 says:

    Lodz guest: I took the figure from the guy who keeps the website catalog. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were twice as many. It would be interesting to add up all the money spent on these statues and think of a better use.

  9. anglopole says:

    Great post, Island! :-)

    I wish Poles followed JPII’s footsteps in displaying a loving attitude towards humanity and the world as such, rather than indulge in worshipping the monstrous idols…. few of which really resemble the Pope…

  10. Ania says:


    well, I think that the facebook group explains it:

    – We really like statues. A lot.

  11. ge'ez says:


    “In classic Polish fashion, the erection of the latest graven Pope was not without administrative difficulties.”

    Never mind…

  12. […] writes about the tendency to put up an increasing number of statues to deceased Pope John Paul II in Poland. […]

  13. michael farris says:

    Following up on Ewa’s insightful post, I’d only add the one of the reasons he’s so popular is that he’s the _only_ modern Polish heroic figure that doesn’t divide Polish people into bitterly antagonistic camps.

    The potential legacy of Solidarity and their historic utterly amazing accomplishments have been diminished if not destroyed by bitter, petty feuds and descent of so many of it’s important figures into conspiracy theory madness and irrelevance (which side has gone made depends on one’s biases).

    JPII is the only public historic figure that can inspire a semblance of unity among this most quarrelsome of nations. (I’d add Popieluszko but it seems he’s only remembered on All Soul’s Day).

  14. Gabriela says:

    Very nice post, Island.
    I agree with you and your visitors, I’m pretty sure JPII wouldn’t be happy with this statue deployment. Here in Peru, particularly in Lima, we have our own word for kitsch: huachafo.
    I’d say, in my own terms, this bunch of statues is something ‘huachafo’.
    Best regards from Peru!

  15. Sylwia says:

    Good points everyone!

    I’d say it’s pretty normal though. Every popular figure has quite a varied following. That’s what popularity is about. I don’t think it any more kitschy than the thousands mourning Princess Diana’s death in England, and I’ll never understand what was that about. It’s not true that no one cares about the pope’s message, but it’s true that in a country of 40 million inhabitants more than 39 won’t care. I don’t think the pope would hate it, or would be very disappointed, he was pretty rational.

    Island: Imagine that on wheels; heathens would stand little to no chance.

    What a great idea for a monument in Poznań! I suggest to title it Drzymała’s Pope.

  16. […] writes about the tendency to put up an increasing number of statues to deceased Pope John Paul II in […]

  17. […] Pontiff seems an obvious choice, unfortunately he’s […]

  18. Roy Benning says:

    Mobile PJP’s now theres a thought. Heres another one! What is it with the beggars etc in Poland. They ask you for money and in return you get one of those cards with a deceased pope’s or saint picture. Last year I had inadvertantly collected a serious collection. Now should I contact Panini and get an album deal. You know like the footballers sticker cards around World Cup time. Royalties may be a problem but hey its a thought!

  19. ge'ez says:

    I actually have pope cards. Indeed, I even have JPII’s “rookie” card.

  20. Roy Benning says:

    Wasnt the late great JPII a goalkeeper when he was young?

  21. Pinki says:

    Yes, he was. And an actor too. And he loved skiing and mountain climbing…
    There were some of the reasons why people loved him so much – he was one of them and then he became someone from complitely different world. But he still behaved like he was one of us saying: “Hey, do you know I was a goalkeeper? That was so cool!”

  22. scatts says:

    If only he’d managed to be a more liberal Pope as opposed to right-wing he could have been the world’s first ‘perfect’ human!

  23. ge'ez says:

    Right wing? News to me.

  24. ge'ez says:

    A coupla articles that suggest that pigeonholing JP2 as right wing altogether misses the boat:

  25. scatts says:

    Any Pope that doesn’t lighten up on condoms, homosexuality, women priests, fertility treatment, abortion…etc etc very long list… right wing as far as I’m concerned and JPII didn’t exactly go out on a limb in those areas, did he.

    Right-wing being used for conservative, stuck-in-a-rut, tow the party line……

  26. yellerbelly says:

    My in-laws have always loved him and my father-in-law is quite happy to sit through 3 hours of a DVD devoted to his life. He also had coffee with him once in his younger priesthood days, before my mother-in-law got her claws into him which pretty much endeth’d his priest training.

    Going back to guest from a boat-town’s comment: “I don’t understand priests who tell people that they should do this or that when they don’t have to support their families…” – this isn’t strictly true. The priest in my wife’s local neighbourhood in a certain southern Polish city actually has children, everybody locally knows it, nobody says anything and he gets to see them every Sunday when they visit Church! Which explains why he’s so friendly all the time…

    And he had the cheek to ask my wife about sex before marriage during the pre-wedding ‘chat’ that priests oh-so-love to dish out here…

    Now a statue with him on ski’s or dressed as a footballer would be something different! JPII – the ‘all-action Pope’. I can see the merchandise now…

  27. island1 says:

    ge’ez: It’s difficult to write 500 words on statues without using the word ‘erection’ at least once, especially when you’ve lost your thesaurus.

    Gabriela: Thanks! I didn’t mention the fact that there are also a hundred or so known statues of J P II outside Poland as well. Could he be the world’s most statuefied man?

    Roy: There’s a book deal there, I can smell it: “Hobo Handouts of Eastern Europe: An Illustrated History”

    Sylwia: I’m very excited about the mobile pope idea, so much so that I’m wondering if I can make one and leave it somewhere just to see the reaction it gets.

    Yellerbelly: It’s amazing, almost everybody of a certain age claims to have met J P II at some time in his life; either the guy got about a lot or he was actually triplets – which might explain the number of statues.

    J P II on skis – please, don’t give them ideas!

    Action figure exists already (of course):

    Batteries included.

    My favorite customer comment: I think that this is a wonderful action figure… I have purchased other Biblical Figures and am patiently waiting for an action figure of Samson

  28. ge'ez says:

    A rather myopic, limited and parochial view of political polarities, I’d say. And it seems to me like you are towing a party line — hook, line and sinker. Strange, too, how you have limited your sense of political perspective to sexuality.

  29. Ewa P. says:

    Well, from what I have heard about him, seeing some of these monuments he would really like to steal one reaction from one of the previous popes (I don’t remember who, Pius?). This one, with as much sense of humor as late JPII, having seen the very, very unlikely portrait, wrote on it the deep biblical words “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” :->

  30. guest from boat-town says:

    yellerbelly: I knew that some of the priests have children. I didn’t realize that they might be supporting them, though.
    That changes everything. I like catholic priest who have children and support their families :)

  31. scatts says:

    Okay ge’ez – should have known better than to say anything bad about JPII.

  32. ge'ez says:

    I have no problem with criticisms of JP2. I agree with most of those you made in regard to specifics. But I just don’t think you can label him an unabashed, unadulterated right winger or even a conservative for that matter. Take a few minutes to read the articles I linked to above and maybe you’ll see what I’m trying to get at.

    Besides, most Catholics couldn’t care less what any Pope has to say about rubbers.

  33. ge'ez says:

    Action figure exists already (of course):

    –>> Cool. And there’s Angus Young, Jimi Hendrix and even Devo as well!

    BTW, my guess is that there are well over a hundred JP@ “stasiu’s” in the US alone. Does size matter in count?

  34. Sylwia says:

    Island: I’m very excited about the mobile pope idea, so much so that I’m wondering if I can make one and leave it somewhere just to see the reaction it gets.

    I’m sure you can make one. I can ask some artists if they’re interested, if you want me to. We already have a Jerusalem palm. ;)

    Which is older? The action figures or Barbie? You must admit at least that Poles would never come with something like that. ;) But isn’t it great that the pope is now a Biblical Figure? I’m sure he was Noah, and ‘Barka’ was ‘Arka’.

    The priests with families: People often make the mistake of equating priests to the faith. It’s the faith one’s embracing, and not the private lives of some people who happen to be priests. Of course they’re not perfect, they’re humans after all. May I just remind that the most hypocritical society so far were the Victorians? There are 20 thousands priests in Poland alone. You can’t make an informed judgement because you know someone who did something.

    The liberal-conservative discussion: Why on earth would anyone want to have a liberal pope? He’s not a politician. He doesn’t represent people, only faith. I think it’s a common mistake made by English people about the Catholic faith. The Church of England has to compromise to the government, so when the government compromises to their electors the church has to follow. That’s because there’s no separation of the church and the state. But it’s confusing ethics with aesthetics. Faith is about what is good, and not about what people like.

    Catholics can do with their life whatever they wish, as long as they abide the civil law. The church doesn’t punish them for not following its teaching, but offers a set of principles. The church says that abortion is wrong, because it’s like murder. One can’t expect that suddenly they’ll say it’s fine to kill since there’s a commandment saying “You shall not kill”. But if someone’s interpretation differs they’re free to follow their own judgement and still be Catholics. What happened in Poland is that the vast majority of people do think that abortion is murder, just like many people all over the world think that capital punishment is. So they decided they’re not going to have it legal. It’s called democracy. But then I heard that in some countries it’s legal to drive on the left side of the road. ;-)

    The church is preaching principles, not contemporary thinking, or laws adjusted to a particular situation. I can easily think of cases where stealing would be good, especially during famine or wars, but it doesn’t change the principle that says “You shall not steal”.

    The church is telling people what they should live up to if they want to win a ticket to heaven, the civil law is punishing them for not compromising to the majority.

    I’m not religious, but that’s exactly why the church shouldn’t think like I do, because they are supposed to be religious.

  35. ge'ez says:

    Why do you divorce principles from contemporary thinking, Sylwia?

    Didn’t the Church’s principles come from what was once contemporary thinking?

    It seems to me that the Church needs to maintain and elucidate its principles in a progressive historical context. And certain principles have to be examined in the light of evolving scientific scrutiny.

    And the Church does punish through threat of or actual excommunication in addition to a number of other ecclesiastical sanctions.

    And precise contermpory definitions matter as to what constitutes theft or murder (even if they are derived from experience from the past).

  36. yellerbelly says:

    Going back to the priest with kids…

    If you can call holy wine and communion bread once a week on a Sunday “family support”, then you’re right ;-)

    Sylwia: And nobody’s judging. He’s a great guy – some might even describe him as ‘cuddly’ (his mistress for one). But seriously, it must be extremely hard to fully embrace faith and concede to a life without traditional family norms. I have never understood this aspect. Church of England accepts that there must be a balance and I don’t think this reflects on the strength of someone’s faith.

    Gays and female priests in the church are another issue however…

    ge’ez: the above sounds like you’ve been writing a pietistical university assignment recently. It’s almost poetry! :)

  37. scatts says:

    What’s wrong with female priests, yellerbelly? Or gay priests for that matter. I mean openly gay as opposed to all those who already are gay but not open about it.

    ge’ez – I can’t take articles written by what appears to be a Catholic organisation as being in any way an independent opinion of JPII’s performance in or out of office. I’m not saying he was a bad man, I really liked him a lot, he gave off warm cuddly feelings, but he didn’t even try to remove some of the stupider ‘rules’ of the Catholic church. He was more of a traditionalist than a reformer, his support of Opus Dei being just one example. Mind you, can’t be an easy job, being Pope.

    Does the Catholic church feel the pinch in these crunch-bunch days, I wonder? Did they have stacks of loot in Icelandic banks? Been strangely quiet haven’t they. Just when mamon fails the people you’d thing the God boys would be right in our face, eh? Probably too busy working out what do with all their money in these difficult times.

  38. ge'ez says:

    scatts, do you know anything at all about the Catholic Worker?

    Why does an article have to be independent of any kind of Catholic affiliation to carry any creedance?

    Again, rather than me spouting off, try reading the articles. They are not all that long and methinks they are spot on vis-a-vis the point I’ve been trying to make.

    Or if you want to seriously consider the life and times of JP2, try reading Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch’s:

    or better yet this biographic tome:

    Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, Jonathan Kwitny, Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

    Last, it was revealed just today that JP2 also survived another attack by a knife wielding traditionalist conservative at Lourdes. So it seems, JP2 must have really pissed off one such creature.

  39. scatts says:

    Is there anything I do need to know about the Catholic Worker other than it contains the word Catholic?

  40. yellerbelly says:

    scatts: no, of course not. In fact back in Blighty, we had our very own Dibley lookalike and she received exactly the same respect as the all-male eyebrow twitterer before her (nerves I should think).

    In fact, I would be very interested to hear logical reasoning behind why Catholicism opposes this. And I openly admit I am not one to read up on the diversity of religious beliefs and therefore am probably being quite naive in even asking this question. And I don’t want to hear anything about traditionalism. Times change. And in today’s multi-cultural, borderless, sexually expressive society – attitudes also need to.

  41. ge'ez says:

    Scatts wrote: “Is there anything I do need to know about the Catholic Worker other than it contains the word Catholic?”

    Yes unless you want to be “stuck in the rut” you’re in…

  42. island1 says:

    Sylwia: I think that’s an excellent idea. Let’s build a mobile pope and then we can do a whole series of posts about his mysterious appearances around the country and the reaction they get.

    yellerbelly: I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree asking for rational explanations. As Sylwia says, the church doesn’t see it as their responsibility to be popular or to reflect the current moral climate, just to uphold their doctrine. And you can’t really argue with that; that’s kind of the point of being a church.

    As I understand it there is no unequivocal (note:’unequivocal’) biblical injunction against having female priests (which is how the Church of England got away with it), but unlike some fundamentalist Christian churches, the Catholic Church doesn’t take the bible as the beginning and the end of its source of authority anyway; there are two thousand years of canonical interpretation that are also given weight (since these interpretations are also thought to have been guided by god). Nothing unusual in that – Judaism and Islam have similar traditions of additional ‘notes and queries’ that have been tacked on to the original revelations (e.g. the Jewish talmud).

    On the other hand I can’t entirely agree with Sylwia’s position that the church is outside of the influence of changing moral and social conditions. It is, unavoidably, a political institution – although that isn’t its reason for existing – insofar as it has a direct influence on the behaviour and decisions of the voting citizens of a democratic nation and insofar as it has to retain the support of those people to continue to exist. What is and isn’t forbidden by the bible can be a source of great confusion and merriment, and the church has clearly let some of the more extreme requirements slip over the centuries because they just weren’t practical. It’s famously true, for example, that the bible explicitly commends the death penalty for people who eat shellfish, wear clothes made of more than one kind of material, consume pork (the entire Polish nation is clearly buggered by that one), cut their beards, etc.

    In other words the Catholic position on women priests is this: “We thought about it long and hard, asked god what he thought, read the bible lots of times, and in the end we just don’t like the look of it.” And you can’t argue with that, there is no requirement for them to provide a rational explanation, it’s an argument from faith.

  43. Pawel says:

    Sylvia, I think you value the Poles too much if you think they couldn’t come up with a “pope action figue”…
    Have you heard about the “Virgin Mary plastic holy water bottle”?:)

  44. […] Polandian writes about the fast-growing population of Pope John Paul II statues in Poland: […] There are now […]

  45. […] Polandian writes about the fast-growing population of Pope John Paul II statues in Poland: […] There are now […]

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