Nowadays it seems half the world remains riveted on Poland. And why not, given the recent extraordinary electricity of events there. After all, her most celebrated son returned, to remind his beleaguered countrymen of the facts of their solidarity before God and His Blessed Mother; to remind, too, their government of those facts, contempt for which will not be borne by the moral order he represents.
At Czestochowa especially, historic center of Polish piety, the Pope bore powerful witness to Our Lady’s singular and constant regard for her people. “Our Common Mother,” he said — her eyes “tear-filled and sad” on this 600th anniversary of her feast — “knows your sufferings … your sense of injustice and humiliation.” Then, in the teeth of forty years of virulent atheist tyranny, Christ’s Vicar led a crowd of almost one million in thunderous rendition of “Mary, Queen of Poland.” Leaving, was it possible, Poland’s beloved Black Madonna wreathed in smiles?
“How many divisions has the Pope?” — derisively asks the despot. Not a whit of course but, of grace it might almost seem, quite enough to topple any regime. In whose hands, finally, are the keys to the Kingdom? Is it so unlikely, then, in the decisive wake of this man of God’s return to Poland, his homecoming triumphant however marked by frustration and sorrow on account of the puppet Jaruzelski’s attempted suppression of the Polish spirit, that vast sea changes are even now being prepared for Poland? Who can doubt but that three years ago, from the very heart of Communist East Europe, there arose a movement of fierce and sweeping irredentist pride; one moreover whose essential theological provenance not a single Marxist formulation could either have explained or prevented. On the contrary, insisted this Pope in his address that week to the people of Szezecin, so many of whom had been there at the beginning, when, in August of 1980, striking shipyard workers first challenged the right of the government to set the conditions of their labor: “This presence of yours,” he told them, “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.”
Over and over John Paul was to sound this single note concerning the necessity of every state, in strict justice, to acknowledge the “people’s right to free association.” Nowhere was it struck more resonantly than within Warsaw itself, at the Cathedral of St. John, where the Pope eulogized Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Poland’s late Primate and patriot, whose legendary defiance of Communist authority continues to fire Polish morale. “This right (freely to associate),” argued the Pope, “is not given to us by the state. The state has the obligation only to protect and guard it so that it is not violated. This right is given by the Creator who made man as a social being.”
And when, at another Mass (at which nearly 800 thousand youth attended), he renewed his theme, declaring “Man cannot remain without a way out,” one felt somehow that even Poland’s slave masters must yield to this truth about the human person. Surely even they must move eventually to dismantle what Roman Guardini once called “the most hideous manifestation of tyranny,” to wit, its brutal denial of the truth about man?
Somehow watching it all unfold on television, if anything its poignancy enhanced by Polish censorship apparatus, one thought of Dostoevsky, and of his character Stefan (from The Possessed), who simply cannot abide a world bereft of meaning either transcendent or personal. “The one essential condition of human existence,” he insists, “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.”
And so, in this year of Grace, 1983, Christ’s Vicar chose to come home to Poland. Whereupon he sought both to draw his own people from despair, reminding them of ancient attachments destined to redeem even this awful moment of their history, and to warn oppressors of the risks they run in driving them to it. It cannot be well, this son of Poland seemed to be saying, either for authentic Poland, or those temporarily charged with her future, to neglect the Black Madonna, whose special care is Poland … and the world.