Do not be afraid
In October 1979, one year after he became Pope, John Paul II visited
Battery Park and gave a speech about freedom. My mother stood in the rain
for hours with thousands of New Yorkers to see the Polish Pontiff. When he
finally arrived, hundreds of immigrants began chanting in Polish, "Long live
the Pope." Swallowed by the multitude, my mother cried out, "Long live
By Alex Storozynski
When he heard her, Pope John Paul stopped in his tracks and made his way
through the crowd. He took my mother by the hand, looked into her eyes and
said, "Long live Poland."
At that point, despite its democratic history, Poland was still stuck
behind the Iron Curtain. This was a moment when two people who had suffered
through the destruction and occupation of their homeland, first by the Nazis
and then by the Soviet Union's communist regime, expressed hope that someday
Poland would again be free.
With the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop, the Pope said in his speech:
"On this spot, I wish to pay homage to this noble trait of America and its
people: its desire to be free, its determination to preserve freedom, and
its willingness to share this freedom, to remain a moving force for your
nation and for all the nations in the world today!"
A few months before his visit to New York, the Pope, born Karol Wojtyla
(pronounced Voy-ti-wah), visited his native country and told the Poles, "Do
not be afraid." The message was a call to action.
The following year, Poles rose up against the atheist regime and created
the Solidarity trade union to challenge the totalitarian system imposed on
them. Eventually, the Kremlin told its puppet regime in Warsaw that unless
they crushed Solidarity, Soviet troops would. When John Paul II learned of
this threat, he sent then-Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev a letter that
said if the Russians moved against Poland, he would "lay down the crown of
St. Peter and return to his homeland to stand shoulder to shoulder with his
people." To avoid a bloodbath at the hands of Soviet troops, Polish generals
cracked down on the union. Union leaders were thrown in jail and Solidarity
In 1981, in a desperate attempt to stop this Polish Revolution, the
Russian KGB ordered the assassination of the Polish Pope. John Paul II
survived the shooting and became more determined to speak up for freedom.
Karol Wojtyla and Solidarity inspired me so much, that after graduating
from journalism school in 1985, I went to Poland to delve into my Polish
roots. There I saw what my mother and the Pope had known for years:
Communism was a cruel joke being played on mankind, and it had to be
abolished. The only things communism created in abundance were poverty and
indignity. Store shelves were nearly empty. Ration cards were required to
buy meat or sugar. Toilet paper was nonexistent. The currency was worthless.
The press was censored. The communist bureaucracy was so paranoid that
people had to fill out forms just to make a Xerox copy. Yet there was one
injustice that the overpowered Poles would not stand for ^× they would not
succumb to the Soviet system's atheism.
Christianity has been dominant in Poland for a thousand years. Poles
would die before giving up their religion. The Catholic Church was Poland's
second government, and mass was still the one place Poles could pray for
As he imposed communism on Eastern Europe, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin
talked about forcing atheism on people who were willing to die for their
religion. He said, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Eventually, the
Poles proved that it does not take tank divisions to overthrow tyranny. It
I interviewed the Solidarity leaders inspired by the Pope. They told me
that their belief in God helped them to use passive resistance the same way
that Gandhi and Martin Luther King did to fight injustice in their own
countries. Solidarity founder Lech Walesa told me that he could not compete
with Soviet tanks, so he worked to change his country through evolution, not
revolution. In his apartment he had pictures of the Pope, and he wore a pin
with the likeness of Jesus and the Black Madonna on his lapel. Solidarity
was down, but not out. Freedom would not be denied.
In June 1987, John Paul II made his third trip to Poland since becoming
Pope. The communist authorities publicly warned that it would not tolerate
any protests by Solidarity activists.
The Pope stuck it to them.
I attended a large open air mass in Gdansk, where a large altar in the
shape of a wooden ship was built in a field near Walesa's apartment
building. From this ship hung two large anchors, reminiscent of the symbol
Poland's underground army used when it fought the Nazis and Soviets in World
War II. The acronym that symbol stands for: "Poland Fights On!"
In his homily, the pontiff extolled the virtues of free speech,
pluralism and human rights. The Pope used the word "solidarity" seven times
and urged the Poles. During this mass, a sea of worshippers unfurled
hundreds of red Solidarity banners.
By the end of the decade, the Poles had thrown off the shackles of
communism. This anti-communist revolution spread throughout Eastern Europe,
ending with the Germans tearing down the Berlin War. Make no mistake about
it, John Paul II ended the Cold War and saved the world from nuclear
John Paul II urged Poland to follow the path of dignity, respect and
freedom. In fact, he did that in each of the 129 nations he visited as Pope.
Millions of people around the world have attended masses celebrated by this
Pope. Each one of them will remember him for addressing injustices that
affected them. He also addressed issues that transcended Catholicism. John
Paul II was the first Pope to enter and meditate in a synagogue and a
mosque. He reached out to build bridges between the world's cultures and
religions. He was respected by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
The world has never seen such a champion of peace and human rights. For
that, John Paul II will be remembered as the most significant figure of the
20th Century. And to that, I say, long live freedom. Long live dignity. Long
live the memory of the Polish Pope.
Editor in Chief
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