WADOWICE, Poland – Pilgrims are flocking to a new monument to Pope John Paul II in his hometown, touching the water that runs over its base and collecting it in bottles in the belief that it carries healing powers.
The Roman Catholic church has not proclaimed the water holy, but since the statue was unveiled in Wadowice in southern Poland on June 30, believers have been turning the life-sized bronze figure on a granite base into an informal shrine. The late pontiff was born Karol Wojtyla here in 1920.
"If the water comes from the papal monument, it is holy to us," said Stanislaw Unijewski, a 37-year-old electrician who traveled 120 miles from his hometown of Nysa.
Unijewski and his family dabbed water on their faces and hands, put their hands on the wet granite base of the monument and collected some water into a bottle. "We are taking it home as a relic," he said.
Slawomir Piotrowski, 46, traveled across Poland from the northern city of Bydgoszcz to visit John Paul's hometown. He, his wife and their two teenage children planned to visit John Paul's childhood home and St. Mary's Basilica, where John Paul was baptized and served as an altar boy.
But their first destination was the monument, where Piotrowski let the water flow over his hand before pressing it to his chest, convinced it will help cure his ailing heart.
"I am a little sick and I'm looking for strength to keep on going," said Piotrowski. "We all feel this water will give us new strength."
The granite base is topped by a bronze figure of John Paul wearing papal vestments and a miter, with a staff in his left hand and his right hand raised as if in blessing.
Pilgrims from across Europe and beyond have been seen praying at the monument daily. Many wash their faces and hands in the cool, crystal-clear water that flows over the dark granite.
Wadowice Mayor Ewa Filipiak said the water was connected to the monument simply to enhance the granite's gray-brown color, and that authorities were unaware it would itself become an attraction. It comes from a well in the town's main square that dates back at least to the 16th century.
"It has turned into an additional and very welcome attraction and embellishment of this place linked to John Paul II," she said.
Filipiak said hundreds of people visit the town daily, but the fountain eventually could draw even more people, especially if John Paul, who died on April 2 last year, is declared a saint. Pope Benedict XVI opened the beatification process for John Paul last year, waiving the customary five-year waiting period after his death.
The statue was unveiled by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of nearby Krakow and the longtime personal secretary of John Paul, who is revered in Poland for helping to inspire the pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s that helped end communist rule.
The Rev. Jakub Gil, the parish priest at the Wadowice basilica, said the church has never declared the water holy, but that it provides a tangible reminder to many of the great personal power of the late pontiff.
"No one is telling the people that this is miraculous water," Gil said. But, he added: "Nothing is impossible for believers, and if this water evokes faith, then great things might happen."