John Paul II’s 1983 Visit to Poland: Anniversary Reflections

It was sixty years ago that the Hungarian émigré historian, John Lukacs, published his first book, The Great Powers and Eastern Europe, a masterful treatment of the subject, whose conclusion, including an elegy on the lost world he left behind, has haunted me for years.   Surveying the wreckage of that shattered and divided world, he declared that “only the magnetic force of a rejuvenated, remade, and truly united Western Europe, one that has recovered the erstwhile spiritual greatness of that Christian continent, can eventually develop enough attraction to penetrate the steely barriers separating the West from Eastern Europe’s modern police state.”

That was written in 1953, beneath the cloudless skies of the Eisenhower years, which means that thirty-five more years would need to elapse before the world could witness the final and conclusive collapse of the Soviet Empire in Europe.  It all started a quarter century ago, in other words, beginning with the so-called Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November of 1989, which smashed the fist of the single-party Communist state, leaving the rest of us, especially those smugly ensconced amid the flesh pots of the capitalist West, in a state of stunned surprise.

How, we asked ourselves, could a people divided for more than forty years by such a massive and impregnable symbol of Soviet sanctioned oppression as the Iron Curtain, come suddenly together in spontaneous and joyous fashion to dance atop the ruins of the Berlin Wall?

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Under the impact of what idea or force of history did the whole Marxist superstructure of violence and deceit suddenly fall away, its final implosion taking place before the eyes of an astonished and grateful world?  Was it merely the weight of so many outmoded and discredited economic policies that brought down the beast?    The inherent illogic of socialist doctrine finally catching up with the idiots of ideology in the Kremlin—was that the warhead?    If Socialism, as someone once wittily put it, were ever to be imposed upon the world of the Sahara, absolutely nothing would happen for fifty years, after which there would be a shortage of sand.  Given the impacted ineptitudes of the collectivist system, how could it behave otherwise than to self-destruct?

But why at that precise moment of history?  Where had the courage and the resolution come from which, all at once, possessed a people so accustomed to generations of supine submissiveness, to mobilize on behalf of their own liberties, their own future?  Was there a special magic at work here?

Conventional wisdom tells us that the Warsaw Pact countries, mere satellites of the Soviet Union, broke the orbit of their dependency simply because they could no longer compete with Western technology, Western consumerism, which is to say, the whole capitalist bag of tricks.  The puppetry could no longer be propped up once enough people had seen the Land of Oz beyond the sea.

But people do not imperil their lives, nor mortgage their children’s future, merely in order to spend more cash.  However high the ceiling, purchasing power has only so much bounce.   Desire may be infinite, but not the appetite on which it feeds.  Something very different and much deeper than television sets and designer jeans has to rivet the mind and heart of a captive people to make them yearn for freedom.

So what was it that changed the face of Europe in 1989, redefining the politics of the world in that year of miracles?  And have we the same spark that ignited the souls of all those who survived the great train wreck of the last century?  If we haven’t, is it possible to get it back?

As the work of George Weigel, among others, has amply demonstrated, the decisive overthrow of Soviet tyranny really began in the summer of 1983, when the Vicar of Christ, John Paul II, visited for the second time his native land where, infusing his countrymen with the sense of belonging to God, fortified them with the strength and courage they would need to throw off the tyranny of the past.

How the world seemed then to be fixated on the fate of Poland!  Her famous son had just returned in triumph, reminding his beleaguered brothers and sisters of their solidarity before God and his Mother.  Reminding, too, and with salutary sternness, the slave masters who sought to strangle the nation and its culture.  At Czestochowa especially, the historic heart of Polish piety, the pope bore powerful witness to Our Lady’s tender regard for her people.  “Our common Mother,” he called her, “her eyes tear-filled and sad on this six-hundredth anniversary of her feast, knows your sufferings … your sense of injustice and humiliation.”

Indeed, in the knowledge of those forty years of virulent atheist tyranny—the combined hideousness of first Nazi and then Soviet occupation, all the brutalizing years of her subjugation beneath the twin boots of twentieth century terror—the Pope led an audience of almost one million faithful Poles in a thunderous rendition of Mary, Queen of Poland.

“How many divisions has the Pope?” derisively asked the despot Stalin.  He hasn’t any.  Only grace enough to topple any regime rooted in untruth and injustice.  Where is Stalin today?  Like the snows of yesteryear, he and his thugs have all gone away, leaving intact the one institution they could not destroy.  And in whose hands God has placed the keys to his Kingdom.

Who can doubt, too, but that during the years leading up to the papal visit, there arose a movement of fierce nationalist pride and conviction from within the very heart of Communist Eastern Europe, a movement that could not have been anticipated or prevented by a single Marxist shibboleth.  As Pope John Paul himself insisted, “This presence of yours has the power of a testimony, a testimony that amazed the whole world when the Polish worker stood up for himself with the Gospel in his hand and a prayer on his lips.”

Again and again, the Pope would sound this single note concerning the necessity of every state, in strict justice, to acknowledge its “people’s right to free association.”  Rooted in the order of creation itself, this right remains ineffaceably inscribed in the moral constitution of every human being, and is rendered yet more precious in the light of Christ.

We are not dealing here with man in the abstract, divested of that uniqueness which ensures that he not be strapped onto some Procrustean bed of totalitarian sameness.  But rather, as the Pope argues, “the real, concrete, historical man.  We are dealing here with each man, for each man is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself forever.”  Every human being belongs to Christ, belongs to the solicitude of the Church he founded to help draw men to God.   We do not confuse the Church with the powers of this world; her identity is not of this world, even as her task is to be in the world as sign and safeguard of the transcended dignity of the human person.

“From the first moment of man’s existence on earth, from the moment of his conception and birth … each man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission … the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

Repeatedly, the Pope struck this essential theme, that the right freely to associate is not given to us by the state, which exists in order to ensure its protection and preservation.  It is a right only God can give.  And having made man in his image, he invites him to find and fulfill that image in a relationship of freedom with others.  For to be is always to be in relation with and to the other

Here we glimpse the deepest meaning of the human person, which touches the plane of metaphysics with its recognition that while each of us remains rooted in himself, we are yet wholly dependent upon Another.  As Fr. William Lynch reminds us in  Christ and Apollo:  “The Catholic imagination does not force me to imagine that at the end I must free myself from all human society to unite myself with God.  Rather, it helps me to imagine that once I have embarked on a good thing (society, for example), I can and must carry it with me all the way into the heart of the unimaginable.”

How vividly I remember seeing the Holy Father on television that prophetic weekend in Poland thirty years ago, insisting that even the tyrants must sooner or later yield to the truth that “man cannot remain without a way out.”  That the despots must move to dismantle what Romano Guardini called “the most hideous manifestation of tyranny,” namely, its determination to deny the truth about man.

I thought too of Dostoevsky, of the character Stefan from The Possessed, who refuses to abide a world without meaning.  “The one essential condition of human existence,” he believed, “is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great.  If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

Could this be the key to the collapse of the Soviet system?  That as Henri de Lubac predicted in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, the whole corrupt enterprise of collectivist tyranny “was bound to end in bankruptcy.  Man is himself only because his face is illumined by a divine ray.”

In that special year of grace, then, when Christ’s Vicar flew into Poland to be with his people, he drew them back from the cusp of a bleak and unrelieved despair by reminding them of ancient attachments intended to redeem their present darkness.  He warned their oppressors of the risks they run in driving God’s people to such an extremity.  It cannot be a good thing, he seemed to be saying, for anyone to neglect the Black Madonna, whose special care is Poland … and the world.  And whose divine Son, Jesus Christ, remains at the center, the axis point of history, offering himself as humanity’s only way out.

What, then, was the Pope’s aim?  It was not merely to remove obstacles pursuant to the renewal of Christian life in Poland.  His motive in going there was rather more ambitious.  It was nothing less than an attempt to re-evangelize the world.  Beginning of course with Europe, whose soul remains in profound need of recovery.  Or as the late Archduke Otto von Habsburg, last surviving link to a Christianized Roman Empire, famously said:  “The Cross does not need Europe; Europe needs the Cross.”  It is what we all need.

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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