Pilgrimage From Poland

Fatigued and Frustrated, Faithful Find Some Relief

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 8, 2005

NETTUNO, Italy, April 7 -- The revolt erupted about 8 a.m., shortly after the Polish pilgrims arrived in this town 35 miles outside Rome and stepped off the buses to inspect the three-star hotel they had been promised with hot showers and warm beds, the first since they had departed Krakow for the Vatican two days earlier.

Instead, what they found was a glorified campground: four bunks in each hut, no heat, one blanket per person. The 145 pilgrims in the three-bus convoy would also have to share a single sink with running water and, much worse, just one toilet.

After two days without decent sleep, after a 1,000-plus-mile bus ride through four countries, and after an excruciating 14 straight hours of shuffling in line for a chance to view the body of Pope John Paul II, some of the pilgrims had finally run out of patience. They refused to stay at the campground and demanded that the bus drivers take them back to Poland.

"It was a big mistake, at just the wrong time," said Greg Jastrzab, 21, a student from Krakow, shaking his weary head as he recalled the scene at the campground. A day earlier, when the pilgrims first arrived at the Vatican, Jastrzab had predicted that the next 24 hours would be the hardest of his life. Reminded of this later, he replied: "Okay, I don't have to tell you, but it all came true."

As tired as the pilgrims were, however, the bus drivers were even more fatigued and balked at the order to turn around. So the travelers got back into the vehicles, curled up in their cramped seats and tried to sleep, unsure where they would go next, or when. Three hours later, some good fortune came their way. Their travel agency managed to find another hotel in Nettuno, the last stop on a regional train line from Rome and, at last, a place where they could get some rest.

Justyna Sienkiewicz, the group's tour guide, absorbed the wrath of the pilgrims. She had started the trip with dark circles under her eyes, having worked around the clock to make travel arrangements since John Paul's death on Saturday. By Thursday night, those circles had become bags as she walked around looking shellshocked.

"This has been the most difficult mission of my life," she said. The campground, she acknowledged, "was terrible, horrible. The people, they didn't want to stay there. And I could understand why."

By nighttime, as they ate a communal meal of pasta and chicken, the pilgrims had regained some of their cheer. Many said they were looking forward to Friday's funeral for John Paul, even though they knew it was doubtful they would be able to get anywhere close to the Vatican for the event. They also spoke with joy as they told stories of how they finally managed to get inside St. Peter's Basilica the night before, one group in a mass of about 5 million pilgrims who came for a last look at the pope before his burial.

Mariola Ostafin, 28, from a small town outside Krakow, said her backache took a sharp turn for the worse after she spent 10 hours standing in the viewing line. She took two painkillers to try to ease the piercing pain in her spine and kidneys and did a lot of praying.

At 1:55 a.m., five minutes before the basilica was scheduled to close for three hours for maintenance, a Vatican guard let her inside, along with her 19-year-old brother, Slawek. "It was God's providence, God's assistance that got me through," she said. "The closer I got to the basilica, the more my pain started to lessen. I'm sure this was because of my prayers."

The Rev. Jan Urbanski, a parish priest from suburban Krakow, looked tired but was upbeat. He made it into St. Peter's Basilica ahead of most of the others in his group, admitting that he used his clerical collar to his advantage in talking his way past a guard.

He lingered inside the basilica for an hour, drinking in the sights and atmosphere. The longer he stayed, the more he resolved to return soon for another visit.

"Even if I knew ahead of time that it would involve so many hardships, I would do it again," he said. "We were even thinking about staying the whole night in St. Peter's Square. The atmosphere was so extraordinary, so unique. Endless crowds of believers, lining up to meet the Holy Father."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company