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John Paul II and the Cold War’s decisive moment

Forty years ago the communists got what they wanted, and lived to rue the day.

When Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków was elected Pope John Paul II in October 1978, the question arose of how Moscow and Warsaw would deal with a potential papal visit to his homeland. The communists wanted no part of a pope behind the Iron Curtain. St Paul VI had accepted the invitation of the Polish bishops to visit for the millennium of Poland’s baptism in 1966, but the Polish regime and its Soviet overlord refused to permit the Holy Father to come.

The wily “Primate of the Millennium”, the now Venerable Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński went ahead with the Mass marking the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Poland at the shrine of the Black Madonna at Częstochowa, concelebrated by Archbishop Wojtyła and the entire Polish episocopate. At the centre of the celebration was an enormous vacant chair, upon which the cardinal placed a portrait of St Paul VI. Everyone got the message.

In 1979, the aging tyrants in Moscow advised their Polish subordinates to close the border to John Paul, as they had to Paul VI. Warsaw knew better; it was simply impossible to refuse the Polish pope entry to Poland, perhaps the world’s most devout Catholic country. So they tried to do the best they could. St John Paul II asked to visit “my beloved Kraków … where every stone and brick is dear to me” for two days in May 1979. He would come for the 700th anniversary of the martyrdom of
St Stanisław, the 11th-century bishop of Kraków, murdered by King Bolesław the Bold himself during Holy Mass. The Polish communist party was aghast; the Polish pope returning to commemorate the anniversary of the state killing his predecessor was simply impossible.

So they refused the proposal for two Stanisław-focused days in May, and offered instead nine days in June. John Paul accepted the “compromise” and announced the nine-day pilgrimage for June. The Polish bishops then decided to transfer the celebration of St Stanisław’s feast to June.

Thus outmaneuvered before the apostolic visit even began, the Polish regime, at best, could only attempt to limit the damage. They clumsily directed Polish state television, for example, not to show any scenes of the massive crowds. Yet they did not manage to get through the first day before suffering a lethal blow.

Landing in Warsaw on June 2, 1979, John Paul made a triumphal entry to the capital city, entering Victory Square, with its tomb of the unknown soldier, for the Mass for the vigil of Pentecost. With a million people packed into Warsaw’s rebuilt Old City, he preached the most important sermon in the thousand-year history of Poland. He began by pointedly recalling that God had seen to it that a pope would visit Poland, even after the refusal of 1966. The words were diplomatic and pious, but there was no subtlety in the message: God had won, the Church had won, the Polish people had won.

“Together with you I wish to sing a hymn of praise to Divine Providence, which enables me to be here as a pilgrim,” he began. “We know that the recently deceased Paul VI, the first pilgrim pope after so many centuries, ardently desired to set foot on the soil of Poland… To the end of his life he kept this desire in his heart, and with it he went to the grave. And we feel that this desire – a desire so potent and so deeply rooted that it goes beyond the span of a pontificate – is being realised today in a way that it would have been difficult to foresee.”

“Difficult to foresee” – perhaps the greatest understatement in the history of papal rhetoric. But John Paul clearly saw what was at stake. It was the same question that led to the martyrdom of Stanisław: would Poland remain free, or would the Polish state claim the things of God?

He continued: “My pilgrimage to my motherland in the year in which the Church in Poland is celebrating the ninth centenary of the death of St Stanisław is surely a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the Church.”

The witness of Poland, “from Stanisław to Maximilian Kolbe”, could not be understood without reference to Christ and the nation’s Christian faith, John Paul insisted. There could be no justice in Europe without a free Poland on the map, and there could be no just accounting of Poland’s identity and mission without including its faith in God.

As the homily went on, John Paul was repeatedly interrupted, sometimes for minutes on end, by a rhythmic chant of the vast congregation: “We want God! We want God!”

By the end of the homily, only hours after his arrival, the historical moment was already clear. The contest was over between a free Catholic Poland and the communist tyranny that had been imposed upon it from Moscow in 1945. It would take another 10 years to work out the details, but it was not in doubt who would win, and why.

The end of the Cold War cannot be understood apart from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and the geopolitics of the 1980s. But the decisive moment was on June 2, 1979 in Warsaw, not on a battlefield or in a chancellery negotiation, but at the Mass for Pentecost.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca