Every year, on the first Sunday after May 8, Catholics honor Stanislaw of Szczepanow, the patron saint of Krakow, with a procession from Wawel Cathedral to Skalka, the Church on the Rock.
Stanislaw, Poland?s first saint and one of the patron saints of the entire nation, was murdered for excommunicating King Boleslaw the Bold in 1079. The king hacked him to pieces with his own hands.
Dating to the 13th Century, the annual procession honoring the saint is one of the oldest ceremonies of both a religious and national nature in Poland.
The procession, which these days draws up to 40,000 people, goes from Wawel Cathedral, where Stanislaw was reburied nine years after his death, to Skalka, the place where he was first buried.
Although Stanislaw is no longer at Skalka, the church has become a national pantheon, with such notables as Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz, painter Jacek Malczewski and painter and writer Stanislaw Wyspianski buried there.
The procession honoring Stanislaw travels along ul. Podzamcze, Stradom, Krakowska and Skaleczna.
A bishop carrying the saint?s skull led the procession during the Middle Ages. After him and other clergy came pilgrims, singing during the entire route.
During those times, the procession and other parts of the commemoration lasted from morning until late afternoon, ending with the bishop?s blessing.
The murder of Stanislaw took place on April 11 or May 8, 1079, depending on which source you believe.
In 1088 his bones were moved from Skalka to Wawel Cathedral.
Pope Innocent IV canonized Stanislaw in 1253 at Assisi, Italy. At the canonization the pope decreed May 8 as the day to honor the saint.
Krakow celebrated the first Feast of Saint Stanislaw on May 8, 1254, with many Polish princes and bishops attending.
In 1879, on the 800th anniversary of Stanislaw?s death, Catholic officials decided to make the celebration the first Sunday after May 8.
Processions to honor the saint were held yearly until the Nazis occupied Poland during World War II. The Germans prohibited any event that could be considered a display of Polish nationalism.
The Soviets, who took over Poland in 1945, tried to quash the Stanislaw processions, too ? part of a Communist effort to eliminate religion from the countries they occupied. The oppression backfired, making the procession organizers more determined to keep holding the commemorations.
When Karol Wojtyla became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, the man who would become Pope John Paul II made the procession both a Polish-wide and an international event. Wojtyla invited bishops from throughout the world to it, for example.
While he was associated with the commemoration, the number of pilgrims soared.
One of the regular guests after 1969 was Poland?s top Catholic leader, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.
Cardinal Wyszynski addressed political and social issues in his annual sermons at the commemoration, striking a chord with the thousands attending during those days of oppression.