A Polish pope returns to his country

Pope John Paul II lived in a world that was not mine. I belong to a generation that has drifted apart from the official Church, which we criticize for being hypocritical and sanctimonious. In particular, some of his views were so gloomy and some of his answers to moral questions of our times were so outdated, that I only felt strengthened in my conviction about the Church being largely irrelevant for the 21st century. The sad personal decay during the last years of his reign, only added to that conclusion. In his rejection of modernism, he was the last pope of a past century indeed.

Yet in the 26 years of his pontificate, Karol Wojtyla (°1920) has left his marks and he played, in my opinion, a decisive role in changing European history. More than a spiritual leader, he was a political player on the world stage - and a global player (a “universal pastor”, he would have said) in his own right. In a masterly way but not without a touch of populism, he could play his audience – and manipulate the mass media for that matter. If Josef Stalin ever asked how many divisions the pope could rely on, the successors of the Soviet dictator have known the answer all too well. Even so well that they masterminded an assassination attempt on 13th May 1981 at St. Peter’s Square in Rome – or so at least is where I think the commissioners of this crime must be sought.

When I accompanied the former pope on his second journey to Poland in June 1983, he was in his early sixties and full of energy yet. In a cautious but explicit and courageous way, he publicly supported the forbidden workers union Solidarnoscz – effectively “guiding” a movement that would replace the powers that be within the same decade. Riding high on symbolism and “double speak”, the Polish pope focussed on the centuries-old parallelism between the struggle for maintaining the catholic faith and the fight for survival of the Polish nation. It is all expressed in the opening line of the Polish national anthem which, in between religious songs, was heard so many times during this “apostolic” journey: Jeszcze Polska nie zginla (“Poland has not perished yet”).

In the early 1980’s, Europe was still divided along post Second World War lines. In Warsaw, general Wojciech Jaruzelski was the communist party leader and in the Kremlin it was still the former KGB-chief Juri Andropov who stood at the helm. The Polish reality was summarized in four figures: 2 Soviet divisions in Poland, and borders of 1.244 km with the Soviet Union, 1.310 km with (then) Czechoslovakia, and 460 km with (then) German Democratic Republic (GDR). On 13 December 1981, martial law had been proclaimed, which temporarily brought the 1980 Gdansk Agreements to a halt and outlawed the Solidarity union.

In between the Leonid Brezjnev years and the Mikhail Gorbachev area, the second visit of the pope to his homeland reflected the uncertainties, the unease, the hope and the fear of the early liberalisation process. History could tilt to either side, and it was only 20 years later that Warsaw would join both Nato and the European Union.

Supported by a popular movement of millions of people, Wojtyla gave a voice to the “Silent Church” by repeating himself the slogans that martial law had forbidden. From Warsaw to Krakóv and from Poznan to Wroclaw, with a particular impressive “Call on the Youth of Poland” in Czestochowa, pope John Paul II made history tip over during this second visit to his native country.

Now that he has passed away, the endless singing of the old tune Sto lat, sto lat niechzyje, zyje nam (“May you live hundred years”) is finally fading. But for those who still doubt the merits of this pope for our times, I assentingly recall the words that I recorded from a Solidarnoscz staff member: “In fifty years time, no one will ever remember who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party in this year. But everybody will forever recall that back in 1983, a Polish pope has returned to his country.”