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A quarter of a century of change: How Poland and its pope made it look easy

By Paula Newton, CNN
updated 11:47 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
 Hometown boy made good: A picture of Pope John Paul II next to Wadowice Basilica.
Hometown boy made good: A picture of Pope John Paul II next to Wadowice Basilica.
  • Pope John Paul II was born in the Polish town of Wadowice
  • He was recently canonized and the town has been reinvigorated
  • Many say that he helped support change in the country and the end of communism 25 years ago

Editor's note: 25 years since Poland's first partly free elections, CNN's On the Road series visits the country looking at how it has been transformed since the fall of communism while taking a deeper look at its customs and culture. Watch reports on CNN TV from June 2.

(CNN) -- "Awesome!" exclaimed Sister Benedykta Mazur, as she described Wadowice's new museum dedicated to its revered hometown boy, Pope John Paul II.

His enthusiasm for his faith and his country radiates through this rural town in southern Poland. And in the spring sunshine Sister Benedykta reminds me of how and why Poland has defied historical odds and emerged as a stable, dynamic country in the heart of Europe.

Sister Benedykta tells me Pope John Paul II made patriotism part and parcel of the fourth commandment, honor and love thy parents. She says the pope encouraged Polish people to love their country and believe in its potential.

There is much debate both inside and outside Poland on whether the pope's influence was ever political or revolutionary. But listening to Sister Benedykta, the debate softens and blurs and what emerges is pure gratitude.

Paula Newton and Sister Benedykta Mazur sit outside Wadowice Basilica
Paula Newton and Sister Benedykta Mazur sit outside Wadowice Basilica

Many people here say they are thankful history bestowed them a Polish pope that embodied their aspirations. A quarter century ago, the Solidarity movement led a bold, brave path to independence and yet it was a movement so nuanced and profound, it's perhaps better appreciated with hindsight. Or maybe on a stroll through the main square in Wadowice.

The square has been rebuilt, the church where the pope worshipped has been restored and renewed.

A papal museum dedicated to the life of Pope John Paul II sits prominently on the square, packed with visitors from all over the world. We speak with Polish families on a Sunday stroll, Irish tourists on a pilgrimage to the former pope's homeland and tourists from the Philippines eager to learn more about the pope's early life.

All comment on Poland's independence and prosperity and how Pope John Paul II seems still to be the guardian of their freedom.

With one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, a stable democracy and a dynamic workforce, Poland has indeed made revolution look easy, even inevitable.

But the chaotic and violent revolutions around the world in recent years are a reminder of how difficult political change can be and why Poland's has been so extraordinary.

To be sure, Poland has been guided by the steady hand of European Union and more importantly, its economic aid. But it's the voices of Solidarity leaders 25 years ago that still resonate.

Pope John Paul II was not always vocal or strident about the situation in Poland or how it should change, but his return to his homeland in 1979 as pope seemed to summon the confidence Polish people always knew they had.

Even those not yet born in 1979 tell us his visit was a catalyst giving Poland the courage and faith to push ahead with its protest and the peoples' demand for freedom and independence.

All these details have been written and rewritten in modern history countless times, but it is on our visit to Poland that we really saw their significance.

In Wadowice's sunny square, in Gdansk's modern football stadium, in Warsaw's renewed skyline, we have found an emboldened country humbled by its historical leaders and thankful for the future they've inspired.

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