The childhood home of Pope John Paul II: rooms of heartbreak & happiness

This historic retreat, a doable day trip from the city of Krakow, Poland, and the site of World Youth Day, offers visitors a powerful spiritual encounter with the early life of the Polish Pope.

On the right, Pope John Paul II family house in Wadowice, Poland. Dziewul | Shutterstock

Hundreds of thousands of the young and faithful, pilgrims from across the globe, are participating in this year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. The opening ceremonies included Mass with Krakow’s archbishop, Stanisław Cardinal Dziwisz, and an address by Pope Francis who continued his call for “compassion and generosity to refugees.

World Youth Day—which actually spans a week—is, according to the festival’s website, “a worldwide encounter with the Pope,” and “a unique way to deepen your faith and grow closer to Christ … together with thousands of other young people who share your interests and ambitions.”

World Youth Day was first launched by Pope John Paul II in 1985, and this year’s triennial festival takes place in his beloved homeland (visitors land at his namesake airport!). While there, many travelers are planning another spiritual stop on their pilgrimage—a very sweet, personal one: John Paul II’s childhood home, just 53 km (an hour) south-west in Wadowice.

Cathedral in Wadowice

The 18th century Lesser Basilica in Wadowice, Poland, where Pope John Paul II was baptized. Hermes Images | AGF | UIG | Getty Images

Though the town is described as “once sleepy,” because it’s the birthplace of a pope and saint, it’s now bustling with tourism, and every shop sells the late Pope’s favorite cream cake, kremówka, which used to only be found in one specialty confectioner’s shop.

MORE TO READ: 20 things you didn’t know about Krakow, Poland

Tourist traps and sweet creamy cakes aside, the Pope’s pre-WWII childhood home-cum-museum holds surprising power and beauty. Although described as a “tenement” in some literature, the building itself is elegant, presenting like a mini-palace, with peachy stucco trimmed in a rich cream, arching doorways, tall windows, a tile roof, and second-floor balcony, from which, you have to think the young Karol Józef Wojtyła gazed out, contemplating life. The home sits just off the town square and features an interior courtyard.

This home is about more than its loveliness, of course. The museum offers a look at the Pope’s heartbreaking childhood years (his mother, father, and two siblings died before he was 20), his experience living in Nazi-occupied Poland, and how these events shaped him into the great man of God he became.

Museum of the Holy Father John Paul II

A view of the exhibition in Museum of the Holy Father John Paul II Family Home in Wadowice. Janek Skarzynski | AFP | Getty Images

And of course, there’s something about being in the house of one of our heroes—particularly a hero of the faith and a person who affected the course of history. The house transcends being just a residence made of plaster and tiles and becomes something more sacred, as we stand in the same room where a saint once slept, walk through rooms where he’d have run as a boy, and discover corners where an eight-year-old who lost his mother may have sobbed and prayed.

To visit this house is a reminder of the work God can do in all of our lives, the way hard times can be turned around and difficulties can be used to change the world. Just as they did in the life of Pope Saint John Paul II.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira

Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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