I grew up in a country with deep Catholic traditions. I was just a year old in 1978 when Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. It was a huge surprise in the then‐communist country, a satellite of the Soviet Union, that a son of Polish soil could become the head of the Catholic Church – which was painfully divided by the Iron Curtain.
Over the years, it became a natural feeling that the pope was Polish. The words ‘pope’ and ‘Pole’ becoming synonyms in my mind. John Paul II visited Poland eight times as the pontiff but I only had one chance to see him live when his papa‐mobile passed my home in 1991. I was 14 years old and took a picture of the event.
Unfortunately, during my professional career I never took a picture of Pope John Paul II. My first such assignment came only after the late pope passed away and I was sent to Rome for his funeral. It was a really hard time with no sleep, no time for eating or bathing. I just wandered about taking pictures of thousands of pilgrims sleeping along the Vatican streets and waiting for several days to attend the funeral ceremony. The air was full of grief. I also queued for hours to get to the St.Peter’s Basilica following an endless stream of people who wanted to honor John Paul II and to take a picture of his body exhibited to the public.
Six years later, it was clear to me that I had to capture pictures from the historic moment of John Paul II’s beatification. I wanted to show the emotions of people traveling from Poland to Rome for the ceremony that was bringing their countryman closer to sainthood. So, I decided to travel together with pilgrims by train from Warsaw to the Vatican. A dedicated train with some 800 pilgrims ‐ including six priests, nuns, families, youths and the elderly ‐ left a Warsaw station on Friday evening and headed for a 27 hour journey to the Vatican.
The trip was not a luxurious one with seating for eight people in each compartment, but a deep religious experience was more important for these people who were well prepared for the inconveniences of the ride. They prayed together and sang religious songs until they slept on mats covering the train’s floors.