WADOWICE, Poland (Reuters) - In the sleepy town of Wadowice in southern Poland, they are sprucing up the main square and renovating the house where its most famous son, the late Pope John Paul II, was born as Karol Wojtyla 91 years ago.
Wadowice, its streets decked out with stalls hawking kitsch papal memorabilia, hopes John Paul’s beatification on May 1 -- the last step before sainthood -- will lure even more pilgrims to the modest two-storey house which is now a museum.
The Catholic Church here and across Poland also hopes the beatification in Rome, bestowing on John Paul the title of ‘blessed’, will rejuvenate an institution whose image has been somewhat tarnished in his native land by political squabbles and a lack of charismatic leadership since the Pope’s death in 2005.
But even some devout Catholics fret that beatification, with all its commercial razzmatazz, may fail to get Poles thinking more deeply about their faith and the late Pope’s teachings.
“About half a million people are already visiting Wadowice every year. Now we want to give them a modern, interactive experience of John Paul II,” said Father Pawel Danek, head of the museum, explaining plans to expand it tenfold to 1,000 square meters with the help of private and public donations.
John Paul is revered in Poland as the man who provided the spiritual inspiration for the overthrow of atheistic communism.
Churches around Poland -- where more than 90 percent of people say they are Catholic and some 40 percent attend mass every Sunday -- will stage all-night vigils before the beatification. Tens of thousands of Poles will be among an estimated 300,000 converging on Rome for the ceremony.
“It is six years since Pope John Paul II left us, but he only appears to be absent. He is still present on the paths of faith, hope and love of the people of God,” said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as the Pope’s private secretary at the Vatican during his 1978-2005 reign.
“We hope the longed-for beatification will deepen this presence, inspiring future generations to follow his ideal of a Christian life.”
Poles overwhelmingly support the beatification but victims of sexual abuse by priests oppose it, arguing that the late pope failed to recognize the extent of the problem. Ultra conservative Catholics also disapprove, regarding John Paul II as too cozy in his relations with other religions.
More than a thousand people gathered on a Warsaw square on April 2, the anniversary of John Paul’s death, as they do every year, to pray, light candles and sing religious songs. They all fell silent at 9.37 pm, the moment he passed away.
“Poles tend to mobilize from anniversary to anniversary, but we forget John Paul’s preaching in our everyday lives,” said Damian Kalita, one of those marking the anniversary.
“Let’s hope that the beatification will help us learn his message of love and reconciliation again and that this time it will last longer.”
But a stone’s throw from the celebration was another kind of gathering that underlines divisions within the Polish church.
Every day, right-wing supporters of Poland’s late president Lech Kaczynski meet in front of the presidential palace to protest against what they see as government connivance in the plane crash that killed him, his wife and 94 others last April.
The protests, whose rallying point for months was a simple wooden cross erected spontaneously outside the palace after the crash, have exposed close links between some Catholic clergy and supporters of Poland’s main opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), whose leader Jaroslaw is Lech’s identical twin brother.
Critics say the church allowed itself to become too closely associated with PiS in the emotionally fraught months after the crash, crossing the line between legitimate honoring of the dead and politicians’ efforts to profit from the tragedy.
“I have an impression the Polish Catholic Church has already lost the chance to rebuild its identity around the teachings of John Paul II and attract new people to it,” said Tomasz Kalita, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).
“Instead, a more reactionary element won, which tends to be used by some rightist politicians and engages actively in politics,” he said.
Kalita said the church was wrong to allow some clergy publicly to back Jaroslaw Kaczynski in his failed bid for the presidency last year.
Lawmakers from the ruling party and opposition SLD criticized the bishops’ intervention several months ago over a bill on in vitro fertilization, which has stalled in parliament.
Many Poles, not only on the political left, have also been critical of the church’s decision to allow Lech Kaczynski to be buried at the cathedral crypt in the Wawel royal castle in Krakow alongside Polish heroes, poets and kings.
Marek Skwarnicki, a personal friend of the late pontiff and editor of his writings, also expressed concern about politics.
“It’s true that the church in Poland has never recovered from the death of John Paul,” said Skwarnicki, who keeps 120 letters from his Vatican friend in a bank deposit safe.
“The nationalist mind-set and political rivalries that have embroiled the church are the main obstacles preventing the preaching of John Paul from really sinking in Poland.”
“The more the church gets involved in politics, the deeper the secularization will be. This is what has already happened in the West.”
Additional reporting by Wojciech Zurawski; Editing by Gareth Jones and Elizabeth Fullerton