KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Souvenir shops at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla was archbishop before becoming Pope John Paul II, do a brisk trade in papal memorabilia now that he is due to be declared a saint.
In one store in the southern Polish city, a saleswoman says she has sold several thousand candles with an image of the late pope on them, at prices from 12 zlotys ($3.95) on up.
Other strong sellers are pictures of the pope fastened to a piece of wood and jigsaw puzzles with his image that come in 260, 500, or 1,000 piece versions.
The boom in pope-related merchandise is just one measure of the abiding appeal of Pope John Paul, who reigned for nearly 27 years before his death in 2007 and whose trips around the world made him the most visible pontiff in history.
If for the rest of the world’s Roman Catholics he is a model of religious devotion, for Poles he also doubles as a political icon credited with helping to bring down the Iron Curtain and free Poland from Communist rule imposed from Moscow.
“The pope ... was a spiritual leader, but also a political leader. There’s no doubt that we ejected the Communists from power thanks to the fact that he mobilized us,” said Leokadia Tylek, visiting the late pope’s home town of Wadowice.
That role has become relevant again for many Poles since Russia’s military intervention in neighboring Ukraine. An opinion poll this month showed Poles more worried about their national independence than at any time since the Cold War.
“Now may he protect us from the misfortune looming from the east,” Tylek said in Wadowice, about 50 km southwest of Krakow.
Many Poles go further and say the pontiff will become their nation’s new patron saint. “Pope John Paul II will be the patron saint of human rights, and of the family,” Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s private secretary, told reporters.
The home in Wadowice where the future pope grew up is now a museum visited by thousands of pilgrims. Refurbished in time for the canonization, its re-opening earlier this month was attended by dignitaries including Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
“This museum is a magnet for tourists and I hope very much that the town will benefit from the increased interest in the Polish Holy Father,” Wadowice Mayor Ewa Filipiak told Reuters. “Tourism could generate big revenues for the town budget.”
Paying tribute to the memory of Pope John Paul II is now a multi-million-euro business.
Surveys by the regional tourist board show about 15 percent of the nearly 10 million visitors to Krakow each year come for religious purposes, mostly associated with the late pope.
Trefl, the company that makes the pope-themed jigsaw puzzles, said it had delivered about 20,000 puzzles to stores, and that the canonization was driving up demand.
“This is an unique collection,” said Aleksandra Krzyminska, public relations manager for the firm.
Artist Czeslaw Dzwigaj satisfies the more discerning end of the memorabilia market. He has been producing statues of the pope in his studio in Rzaska, near Krakow since 1987. At the turn of the century, he had five or six commissions a year.
Demand has since slowed, probably because the market was saturated with John Paul II statues. “But I have orders for busts and memorial plaques,” Dzwigaj told Reuters.
The Polish parliament on Thursday adopted a resolution expressing its gratitude and esteem for the late pope, though some legislators tried to block it, arguing that religion and the state should be kept separate.
Others among Poland’s 38 million population openly challenge the former pontiff’s legacy.
Tadeusz Bartos, a philosophy professor at the Academy of Humanities in Pultusk, near Warsaw, says most Poles are so keen to embrace him as a national hero that they see any criticism as “equal to tarnishing sanctity, spitting on the altar”.
He noted the pope’s rigid opposition to condom use at a time when AIDS was rampant, allegations he did not do enough to tackle child sex abuse involving priests, and he accused him of gagging free debate within the faith.
“John Paul II brought winter to the Church,” said Bartos.
Some, meanwhile, are simply indifferent. As Poles grow wealthier and more of them embrace western European values and aspirations, the numbers going to church are shrinking.
“If someone wants to give a new status to a deceased person, then I‘m cool with it,” said Agnieszka Hejne, 20, a student in the Polish capital, Warsaw. “It’s their problem.” ($1 = 3.0377 Polish Zlotys)
Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski, Pawel Florkiewicz and Antoni Walkowski; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Tom Heneghan