Pope John Paul II, Part II
Last week we went into the history of Karol Wojtyla, the man
who would become Pope John Paul II. Upon his elevation on
October 16, 1978, authorities in both Poland and the Soviet
Union were petrified.
Back in 1978, 90% of Poland was Catholic, the highest
percentage for any nation in the world. Equally "troubling" to
the Communists was the fact that the seminaries were jammed.
Priestly vocations were on the rise. The Soviet ambassador to
Poland reported back to the KGB in Moscow.
"The Catholic Church will now make even greater efforts to
consolidate its position and increase its role in the social and
political life of the country." The only positive that they saw in
having Wojtyla stationed in Rome, was the fact that the clergy in
Poland no longer had their leader on site.
In the book "The Sword and the Shield," which reveals the secret
archives of the KGB, you get a sense of the paranoia surrounding
John Paul II. Much of it, of course, justified. For example,
Polish Party officials were in awe of Wojtyla''s intense and
mystical spirituality. They reported back to Moscow that he
often spent six to eight hours a day in prayer (true). And the
KGB became concerned when the Pope wanted to send his red
zuchetto (the cardinal''s skullcap) that he had worn at the papal
conclave to a church in Lithuania, to be placed on the altar. [The
Pope sought to inspire his compatriots in Vilnius.]
With John Paul II in Rome, it was also just a matter of time
before he would want to make a triumphant return to his native
homeland. Early in 1979, Polish Communist Party boss Eduard
Gierek conferred with Leonid Brezhnev on the topic. Brezhnev,
one of the true idiots of the 20th century, wanted Gierek to figure
out a way to block the trip.
"How could I not receive a Polish pope," said Gierek, "when the
majority of my countrymen are Catholics?" In response,
Brezhnev told Gierek that he would need to convince the Pope to
come up with an illness. "Tell the Pope - he is a wise man - that
he could announce publicly that he cannot come because he has
been taken ill."
Gierek ignored his boss and on June 2, 1979 one million people
converged on the airport road as well as the Old City Square.
Over the next 9 days, more than 10 million of Poland''s 35 million saw
John Paul II in person. Of course, he did not hold back in his
homilies. Often referring to himself as the "Slav Pope," he
singled out Poles, Croats, Bulgarians, Slovaks, Czechs, and
"(I) come here to speak before the whole Church, before Europe
and the world, about those oft-forgotten nations and peoples."
And, this bit.
"The future of Poland will depend on how many people are
mature enough to be nonconformist." The entire visit was
dubbed "Our Nine Days of Freedom."
By 1980, the KGB was attempting to institute a propaganda
campaign throughout the entire Soviet Union as a way of
discrediting the Pope and to demonstrate that he was dangerous
to the Catholic Church. Of course, this failed miserably. And at
the same time, a new round of strikes was spreading, particularly
in the Baltic port city of Gdansk, home of the Lenin Shipyards.
An illegal organization of trade unions, Solidarity, gained
millions of members. The leader was Lech Walesa.
Walesa was an electrician from Gdansk, as well as a devout
Catholic, who had been in contact with Karol Wojtyla in the
years before Wojtyla was elevated to Pope. As the economy in
Poland collapsed in the summer of 1980, the Church played a
critical role in mobilizing opposition to the Communist
government. On August 27, the nation''s bishops approved a
document that explicitly claimed "the right to independence both
of organizations representing the workers and of organizations of
The Polish Politboro met with the Soviet ambassador, explaining
to the Kremlin''s representative that they had to allow the
creation of some form of trade union. "We have no other
political means of normalizing the situation, and it is impossible
to use force." The days of crushing an insurrection with brute
force were over. The people would never submit to such tactics
and the leadership knew this. Plus, there was this issue of a
Polish Pope, the man whom Stalin once claimed had "no
On August 31, 1980 the Gdansk Agreement was signed. The
government finally capitulated on the formation of new trade
unions, even giving them the right to strike. In addition the
Communists agreed to broadcast Mass every Sunday over the
state radio. With flourish, Walesa stepped in front of the
television cameras to sign the document, wielding an oversized
pen with a portrait of John Paul II on it.
The following month, Eduard Gierek, Communist Party boss of
Poland since 1970, was forced to resign. Two months later,
Solidarity was formally recognized by the government, and the
union, feeling its oats, called for free and fair elections.
Moscow, in a fit of rage over Poland''s apparent cave in, sent
Russian, Czech, and East German troops to the border, though
they were withdrawn soon after.
Then in May 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter''s
Square by a Turkish terrorist, narrowly escaping death. The
blame was focused on the Bulgarian secret police who, allegedly,
received the command from Moscow. Nothing has ever been
proven in this regard. The incident did, however, embolden
Solidarity even further and in December 1981 the new head of
state, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law and
replaced some key Communist Party officials in the government
with military officers.
[Jaruzelski would comment later, upon meeting John Paul II,
"My legs were trembling and my knees were knocking
together...The Pope, this figure in white, it all affected me
emotionally. Beyond all reason..."]
Solidarity was suspended and the government placed hundreds
of dissidents, including Walesa, under arrest. During this period
a priest active in the movement was murdered by the police and
the troops brutally suppressed any strikes that broke out as a
result of the hardball tactics.
But while martial law remained in place for two years, it was
easy for all to see that the economy was stagnating and that
opposition remained organized, even if below the surface.
Walesa and Company certainly knew they had the Pope''s
support. It was only a matter of time before the winds would
change in their favor, something which happened in 1985 with
the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1989 free elections were held in Poland with Solidarity
emerging victorious. There was no one prouder than Karol
Wojtyla...Pope John Paul II. As historian Norman Davies
writes, the Pope "undermined Communism by sheer force of
personality and his support for human rights...For the captive
peoples of the Soviet Bloc, he proved to be the steadiest beacon
of hope shining from the West."
"The Sword and the Shield," Christopher Andrew and Vasili
"A History of Modern Europe," John Merriman
"A History of Europe," Norman Davies
"One World Divisible," David Reynolds