The fall of communism and John Paul II’s push
It was 30 years ago this fall that the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the wider collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. It was a moment remembered vividly by those who lived through it.
Few, however, recall the crucial event a few months earlier in June 1989, when Poland at long last held free and fair elections. The communists didn’t win a single seat. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would say that once Poland held those elections, the game was over. The “chaos in Poland,” he said, had threatened an “ensuing break-up of the entire Socialist camp.”
With those stunning, historic elections, the entire Eastern Bloc was blown up, with debris scattered as far as the base of the Berlin Wall. Poland was like a fuse lit at the foundation of the Iron Curtain.
One person not surprised by the catalyst of the Polish elections was the Church’s first Polish pope, its first Slavic pope, and its first non-Italian pope in 455 years: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. On Oct. 16, 1978, the archbishop of Krakow was elected to the chair of St. Peter, taking the name Pope John Paul II.
Reeling from the shock, Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB (the Soviet Union’s secret police and intelligence agency), telephoned the KGB chief in Warsaw and asked in pained amazement: “How could you possibly allow the election of a citizen of a socialist country as pope?”
In response, the chief told Andropov that he should direct his question to officials in Rome rather than in Warsaw. Andropov was not amused. He knew this was a giant loser for the communist empire.
How much of a loser, exactly?
“There, on St. Peter’s Square,” later said Msgr. Jarek Cielecki of Poland, referring to Oct. 16, 1978, “when [Cardinal Wojtyla] came out on that balcony — that was the end of communism.”
Msgr. Cielecki was not the only one thinking that way.
In Moscow, Andropov immediately ordered up what St. John Paul II biographer George Weigel characterized as a “massive” KGB analysis on the potential impact of the new shepherd at the Holy See.
As for Cardinal Wojtyla himself, he was likewise unsure how to react to his election. He turned to Fr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, his close aide, and uttered the abbreviated Italian phrase “Li possino … .” Fr. Dziwisz translated the intended message: “What the … . ?”
Cardinal Wojtyla was not so sure about this. Did they, his fellow cardinals, truly realize the magnitude of what they had done? Apparently, they did — or at least the Holy Spirit did.
Cardinal Wojtyla was, however, unafraid. And he urged the flock to likewise fear not. On Oct. 22, 1978, in his homily for the official installation Mass for his papacy, he exhorted the faithful:
Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization, and development. Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.
It was a homily he wrote by hand — and by heart. And it was a message not only to Catholics, of course, or to Christians broadly. This was a message to atheists, too, particularly the communist ones who closed the doors, borders, systems, cultures, and civilizations under their control — who had tried to close them to Christ’s saving power. And it was just the start of an avalanche against the communist world.
Soviets oppose trip to Poland
Asked which country he wanted to visit first, the new pontiff did not hesitate to name his homeland. He eagerly planned a triumphant return home. Communist authorities planned as well, though not so triumphantly.
From the outset, the Kremlin had vetoed the idea of its puppets in the Polish regime allowing their most famous citizen to enter his own country. Poland’s puppet-in-chief, Communist Party boss Edward Gierek, gently informed his Kremlin string-puller that stopping such a visit was impossible.
“How could I not receive a Polish pope,” Gierek pleaded with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, “when the majority of my countrymen are Catholics?”
Brezhnev told Gierek to instruct the pontiff to make a nifty excuse: “Tell the pope — he is a wise man — that he could announce publicly that he cannot come because he has taken ill.” (One must assume that this would need to be a 26-year ongoing illness/excuse for the Polish pope.)
Somehow not discerning the brilliance of Brezhnev’s proposal, Gierek gently tried to tell his boss that his proposal would not be very effective. The Bolshevik balked, barking at his Polish underling that his predecessor had been a “better communist.” Brezhnev reluctantly gave his consent, warning Gierek: “Well, do what you want, so long as you and your party don’t regret it later.” He slammed down the telephone.
Of course, Gierek would regret it, as would Brezhnev.
Poles: ‘We want God’
Shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 2, 1979, the pontiff arrived home. (It was his second foreign trip as pope. The first was in January/February 1979 to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Bahamas). He exited his Alitalia 727 and knelt and kissed the ground of his beloved country. As he did, church bells rang throughout the nation.
The trip featured numerous public appearances by a beaming St. John Paul II, touching moments with tens of millions of everyday Poles with Masses, homilies, speeches, and statements. The official Vatican repository today posts dozens of transcripts of various sets of remarks by the pontiff during the nine-day visit.
Of these, none surpassed the Holy Father’s homily at his opening Mass on June 2. It was a homily given, appropriately, at Warsaw’s Victory Square. Yes, Victory Square. It was a square renowned as a symbol of withstanding World War II totalitarianism, and it was now, with St. John Paul II’s presence, a symbol of withstanding Cold War totalitarianism.
“Together with you I wish to sing a hymn of praise to Divine Providence,” began the pontiff, “which enables me to be here as a pilgrim.”
The pilgrim’s roughly 2,300-word homily began with a touching invocation of the hand of Divine Providence. “I was, through the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence,” John Paul II said, “called by the votes of the cardinals from the chair of St. Stanislaus in Krakow to that of St. Peter in Rome.”
Together with you I wish to sing a hymn of praise to Divine Providence.
And then the Polish pope dug deeper into the mystery of the hand of Providence. He asked his fellow citizens: “I must nonetheless with all of you ask myself why, precisely in 1978, after so many centuries of a well-established tradition in this field, a son of the Polish nation, of the land of Poland, was called to the chair of St. Peter.”
Throughout this nine-day pilgrimage, a kind of walking novena, St. John Paul II avoided being too explicitly political, no doubt wanting to keep his eye on the Gospel and not push the envelope too much with communist controllers and armed police posted throughout the crowds that pressed upon him.
Nonetheless, nary a soul failed to connect the dots. When the Polish pontiff who had suffered under Marxism-Leninism invoked the Polish witness and experience, every Pole knew to connect his words to the struggle against atheistic communist ideology that was an omnipresent evil every day of their lives.
“Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe at any longitude or latitude of geography,” said the Polish pontiff at Victory Square. “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land.”
Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man.
And then came this significant statement, the pontiff’s strongest political affirmation of the entire nine days, marked with an exclamation: “There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!” This bears repeating with emphasis: “There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!”
That was a shot heard in Moscow. There could be no “just Europe” that did not include an independent Poland on its map. Nothing else needed to be said.
This, Moscow knew, Poles knew, was a significant statement. Here was a voice not to be suppressed. Here was a voice that was unafraid.
And if that was not enough of a sign of victory in Victory Square that day, thousands of young Poles, as if on cue, marked the end of the pontiff’s speech by hoisting in the air thousands of little wooden crosses. They chanted, “We want God! We want God.”
That was the Gospel they wanted, not the false faith of Marxism-Leninism.
And it was that Gospel, St. John Paul II would later say, that ultimately toppled communism.
“I didn’t cause this to happen,” the pontiff would humbly say. “The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake, and the rotten apples fell.”
The communists had indeed sowed some bitter seeds that produced a shaky tree with rancid fruits. This was a tree with bad roots. The tree fell. So did the wall. And no one would deny that St. John Paul II, despite his own pleas of humility, deserves great credit for his role in providing a powerful push.
To learn more:
Read St. John Paul II’s homily on June 2, 1979, at Victory Square in Warsaw at CDmag.net/31I0NKk.
Watch the June 4, 1979, broadcast of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and its coverage of St. John Paul II’s visit to Poland at CDmag.net/2Z1qyn2.
Editor’s Note: This article is from the November 2019 print issue of Catholic Digest.