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by Andrew Nagorski

After Pope John Paul II.

Andrew Nagorski, a senior editor at Newsweek International, served as Newsweek's Rome bureau chief from 1982 to 1985 and reported frequently from Poland both during and after the Communist era.

Almost as soon as he was elected Pope in 1978, John Paul II expressed his wish to return to Poland for an official visit. Both the Communist rulers in Warsaw and the Kremlin were jittery about the possible impact of such an event, and they found themselves at odds about how to respond to the pontiff's request. Soviet party boss Leonid Brezhnev wanted to derail the visit altogether, warning his Polish counterpart, Edward Gierek, that it would "only cause trouble." "Tell the Pope--he's a wise man--he can declare publicly that he can't come due to illness," he suggested. When Gierek demurred, saying he had no choice but to allow the Pope to come, Brezhnev reluctantly backed off. "Well, do as you wish. But be careful you don't regret it later."

Brezhnev was never known as a brilliant tactician--or a brilliant anything, for that matter--but, in this particular case, his political instincts were right on target. The Pope made his famous triumphant procession through his homeland in June 1979, and--anything but coincidentally--the workers at the Gda*nsk shipyard went on strike in August 1980, giving birth to the Solidarity free-trade union movement. The rest, as they say, is history.

While it's now generally accepted that the Pope was a major catalyst in the dizzying chain of events that led to the fall of Communism, the full scope of his activism during the crucial early period of his papacy isn't all that well-known or understood. Nor do many people outside Poland appreciate the complexity of his relationship with his homeland in the post-1989 era.

The Pope's commitment to religious freedom, and to freedom of conscience in the broader sense, was never limited to Poland. From the early days of his papacy, he also focused on Communist countries with far more repressive policies. In 1980, he convened the first official synod of the emigre bishops of the Ukrainian Uniate Church--an Eastern rite branch of the Church outlawed by Josef Stalin. He also quietly supported efforts to sustain an underground Ukrainian church. In the early '80s, I met a Polish priest who regularly risked arrest by traveling in civilian clothes to administer the sacraments there; the Pope was aware of his activities and those of others like him. The Pope was similarly committed to helping Catholics in the Baltic republics, especially in Lithuania, where religious activists churned out dissident pamphlets chronicling each new act of repression. In 1983, the Pope appointed Julijanus Vaivods of Latvia as the Soviet Union'sfirst resident cardinal. And, that same year, he dedicated his pilgrimage to Lourdes to "all those who are suffering [religious] persecution." In short, his message was that the "silent churches" now had found a voice--his voice.

His determination to support the faithful was a direct result of his experiences in Poland. For he, too, had studied in an underground seminary--in his case, during the German occupation. As a priest in postwar Poland, his combination of pastoral gifts and penetrating intellect, along with his obvious popularity among the faithful, quickly brought him to the attention of his clerical superiors.

Karol Wojtyla also attracted the attention of the Communist authorities. At first, they badly misjudged him, believing that his focus on faith and culture, as opposed to any overtly political course, meant that he didn't represent a threat. Documents from the Polish secret police archives recently revealed that they were also misled by one of Wojtyla's fellow clerics--an informer named Wladyslaw Kulczycki, who turned in regular reports on the rising star of the Polish Church. Kulczycki, who wanted to climb the hierarchical ladder himself, was envious of Wojtyla's appointment as bishop and then archbishop of Krakow. His reports dismissed Wojtyla as a lightweight, but eventually the secret police realized that their informer's envy was skewing his judgment.

By then, however, Wojtyla was a force that couldn't be stopped. He waged a relentless campaign to construct a church in Nowa Huta, a town on the outskirts of Krakow that was supposed to be a model of socialism, with its giant steel mill--and, according to the planners, no places of worship. To that end, he mobilized volunteers who built the imposing Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland over the period of adecade, and their struggle became a rallying point for opposition to the regime.

The election of John Paul electrified Poles. If the seemingly impossible had happened and a Pole had been elevated to the papacy, then just maybe his countrymen weren't destined to be on the other side of the European divide, isolated and poor, forever. The Pope's messagein 1979 and on subsequent visits was never to lose hope, not to be afraid, always to speak the truth. Coupled with his constant refrain about Europe's common spiritual genealogy, this amounted to an all-out assault on the division of the Continent. On hearing of the death of the man who eventually bested him, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish party leader who imposed martial law and outlawed Solidarity, acknowledged the impact of that message: "The Pope was a detonator who liberated the spirit of the society," he said.

The Pope and his Church offered more than just words in the struggle against Jaruzelski's regime. During those dark days when Solidarity was driven underground, Polish churches often provided cover for activists to hold meetings, show videos--which were novelties then, and, most importantly, impossible to censor--and plan their next moves. On the Pope's next visit to Poland, in 1983, his Masses turned quickly into Solidarity rallies, with the mammoth crowds hoisting Solidarity banners and raising their fingers in the V-for-victory gesture.

The Pope was delighted by the seismic changes of 1989, but his first trip back to Poland in the new post-Communist era was not simply a victory lap. He let Poles know in 1991 that he was disappointed that they hadn't yet rejected the abortion-on-demand policies of the old regime, and he warned against "an easy and mechanistic copying" of Western hedonistic values. In effect, he was saying that liberation from Communism shouldn't mean an abandonment of the spiritual values that fueled much of the resistance. "Understand, all you who are careless in these matters, understand that you cannot fail to concern me and cannot fail to hurt me," he told a rain-soaked crowd at a Mass in Kielce.

For Poles who were rushing to embrace consumerism and everything else that was seen as Western, this was a rude wake-up call. On its November 1991 cover, the Polish Catholic intellectual monthly Znak asked the question: "have we failed the pope?" To a certain extent, the answer was yes. Nonetheless, church attendance is still impressive, particularly when compared with the largely empty pews in Western Europe. And the influx of young men into seminaries during the '80s--due to the high moral prestige of the Church in that embattled era and the presence of a Polish Pope--has meant that Poland hasn't experienced anything like the crisis in vocations in the West. But, in the long run, the Church in Poland will inevitably lose ground to some of the same competing forces and modern secular temptations as Churches have in other countries.

Perhaps the greatest countervailing force to this trend will be the memory of the Polish Pope and what he did for his country and the world. And this, of course, always comes back to his inspirational role for the Solidarity movement. Characteristically, he never wanted to dwell on that and wasn't comfortable when others did so in his presence. Shortly before his death a few years ago, Jozef Tischner, the Krakow theologian-priest who was a good friend of Wojtyla's, recalled an evening they spent together in August 1980. Over dinner in the papal quarters, they watched Italian television reporting on the strikes in Gda*nsk. The TV camera showed the crowd of striking workers and the shipyard's gate covered with flowers. Then, among the flowers, it zoomed in on a portrait of John Paul II, another potent symbol. At that moment, Tischner said, the Pope seemed to shrink into himself and didn't say a word. But the image had said it all.

Copyright 2005 The New Republic, LLC The New Republic April 18, 2005


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