Everyone has spoken this past week of John Paul II’s role in the defeat of Soviet communism and the liberation of Eastern Europe. We don’t know everything, or even a lot, about the quiet diplomatic moves—what happened in private, what kind of communications the pope had with the other great lions of the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher. And others, including Bill Casey, the tough old fox of the CIA, and Lech Walesa of Solidarity.
But I think I know the moment Soviet communism began its fall. It happened in public. Anyone could see it. It was one of the great spiritual moments of the 20th century, maybe the greatest.
It was the first week in June 1979. Europe was split in two between east and west, the democracies and the communist bloc—police states controlled by the Soviet Union and run by local communist parties and secret police.
John Paul was a new pope, raised to the papacy just eight months before. The day after he became pope he made it clear he would like to return as pope to his native Poland to see his people.
The communists who ran the Polish regime faced a quandary. If they didn’t allow the new Pope to return to his homeland, they would look defensive and frightened, as if they feared that he had more power than they. To rebuff him would seem an admission of their weakness. On the other hand, if they let him return, the people might rise up against the government, which might in turn trigger an invasion by the Soviet Union.
The Polish government decided that it would be too great an embarrassment to refuse the pope. So they invited him, gambling that John Paul—whom they knew when he was cardinal of Krakow, who they were sure would not want his presence to inspire bloodshed—would be prudent. They wagered that he would understand he was fortunate to be given permission to come, and understand what he owed the government in turn was deportment that would not threaten the reigning reality. They announced the pope would be welcome to come home on a “religious pilgrimage.”
John Paul quickly accepted the invitation. He went to Poland.
And from the day he arrived, the boundaries of the world began to shift.
* * *
Two months before the pope’s arrival, the Polish communist apparatus took steps to restrain the enthusiasm of the people. They sent a secret directive to schoolteachers explaining how they should understand and explain the pope’s visit. “The pope is our enemy,” it said. “Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns. . . Because of the activation of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop. . . In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford any sentiments.”
The government also issued instructions to Polish media to censor and limit the pope’s comments and appearances.
On June 2, 1979, the pope arrived in Poland. What followed will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
He knelt and kissed the ground, the dull gray tarmac of the airport outside Warsaw. The silent churches of Poland at that moment began to ring their bells. The pope traveled by motorcade from the airport to the Old City of Warsaw.
The government had feared hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands would line the streets and highways.
By the end of the day, with the people lining the streets and highways plus the people massed outside Warsaw and then inside it—all of them cheering and throwing flowers and applauding and singing—more than a million had come.
In Victory Square in the Old City the pope gave a mass. Communist officials watched from the windows of nearby hotels. The pope gave what papal biographer George Weigel called the greatest sermon of John Paul’s life.
* * *
Why, the pope asked, had God lifted a Pole to the papacy? Perhaps it was because of how Poland had suffered for centuries, and through the 20th century had become “the land of a particularly responsible witness” to God. The people of Poland, he suggested, had been chosen for a great role, to understand, humbly but surely, that they were the repository of a special “witness of His cross and His resurrection.” He asked then if the people of Poland accepted the obligations of such a role in history.
The crowd responded with thunder.
“We want God!” they shouted, together. “We want God!”
What a moment in modern history: We want God. From the mouths of modern men and women living in a modern atheistic dictatorship.
The pope was speaking on the Vigil of Pentecost, that moment in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit came down to Christ’s apostles, who had been hiding in fear after his crucifixion, filling them with courage and joy. John Paul picked up this theme. What was the greatest of the works of God? Man. Who redeemed man? Christ. Therefore, he declared, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude. . . . 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.” Those who oppose Christ, he said, still live within the Christian context of history.
Christ, the pope declared, was not only the past of Poland—he was “the future . . . our Polish future.”
The massed crowd thundered its response. “We want God!” it roared.
* * *
That is what the communist apparatchiks watching the mass from the hotels that rimmed Victory Square heard. Perhaps at this point they understood that they had made a strategic mistake. Perhaps as John Paul spoke they heard the sound careen off the hard buildings that ringed the square; perhaps the echo sounded like a wall falling.
The pope had not directly challenged the government. He had not called for an uprising. He had not told the people of Catholic Poland to push back against their atheist masters. He simply stated the obvious. In Mr. Weigel’s words: “Poland was not a communist country; Poland was a Catholic nation saddled with a communist state.”
The next day, June 3, 1979, John Paul stood outside the cathedral in Gniezno, a small city with a population of 50,000 or so. Again there was an outdoor mass, and again he said an amazing thing.
He did not speak of what governments want, nor directly of what a growing freedom movement wants, nor of what the struggling Polish worker’s union, Solidarity, wanted.
He spokeof what God wants.
“Does not Christ want, does not the Holy Spirit demand, that the pope, himself a Pole, the pope, himself a Slav, here and now should bring out into the open the spiritual unity of Christian Europe . . .?” Yes, he said, Christ wants that. “The Holy Spirit demands that it be said aloud, here, now. . . . Your countryman comes to you, the pope, so as to speak before the whole Church, Europe and the world. . . . He comes to cry out with a mighty cry.”
What John Paul was saying was remarkable. He was telling Poland: See the reality around you differently. See your situation in a new way. Do not see the division of Europe; see the wholeness that exists and that not even communism can take away. Rhetorically his approach was not to declare or assert but merely, again, to point out the obvious: We are Christians, we are here, we are united, no matter what the communists and their map-makers say.
It was startling. It was as if he were talking about a way of seeing the secret order of the world.
That day at the cathedral the communist authorities could not stop the applause. They could not stop everyone who applauded and cheered. There weren’t enough jail cells.
* * *
But it was in the Blonie Field, in Krakow—the Blonia Krakowskie, the fields just beyond the city—that the great transcendent moment of the pope’s trip took place. It was the moment when, for those looking back, the new world opened. It was the moment, some said later, that Soviet communism’s fall became inevitable.
It was a week into the trip, June 10, 1979. It was a sunny day. The pope was to hold a public mass. The communist government had not allowed it to be publicized, but Poles had spread the word.
Government officials braced themselves, because now they knew a lot of people might come, as they had to John Paul’s first mass. But that was a week before. Since then, maybe people had seen enough of him. Maybe they were tiring of his message. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
But something happened in the Blonie field.
They started coming early, and by the time the mass began it was the biggest gathering of humanity in the entire history of Poland. Two million or three million people came, no one is sure, maybe more. For a mass.
And it was there, at the end of his trip, in the Blonie field, that John Paul took on communism directly, by focusing on communism’s attempt to kill the religious heritage of a country that had for a thousand years believed in Christ.
This is what he said:
- Is it possible to dismiss Christ and everything which he brought into the annals of the human being? Of course it is possible. The human being is free. The human being can say to God, “No.” The human being can say to Christ, “No.” But the critical question is: Should he? And in the name of what “should” he? With what argument, what reasoning, what value held by the will or the heart does one bring oneself, one’s loved ones, one’s countrymen and nation to reject, to say “no” to Him with whom we have all lived for one thousand years? He who formed the basis of our identity and has Himself remained its basis ever since. . . .
As a bishop does in the sacrament of Confirmation so do I today extend my hands in that apostolic gesture over all who are gathered here today, my compatriots. And so I speak for Christ himself: “Receive the Holy Spirit!”
I speak too for St. Paul: “Do not quench the Spirit!”
I speak again for St. Paul: “Do not grieve the Spirit of God!”
You must be strong, my brothers and sisters! You must be strong with the strength that faith gives! You must be strong with the strength of faith! You must be faithful! You need this strength today more than any other period of our history. . . .
You must be strong with love, which is stronger than death. . . . When we are strong with the Spirit of God, we are also strong with the faith of man. . . . There is therefore no need to fear. . . . So . . . I beg you: Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged. . . . Always seek spiritual power from Him from whom countless generations of our fathers and mothers have found it. Never detach yourselves from Him. Never lose your spiritual freedom.
They went home from that field a changed country. After that mass they would never be the same.
* * *
What John Paul did in the Blonie field was both a departure from his original comments in Poland and an extension of them.
In his first comments he said: God sees one unity of Europe, he does not see East and West divided by a gash in the soil.
In this way he “divided the dividers” from God’s view of history.
But in the Blonie field he extended his message. He called down the Holy Spirit—as the Vicar of Christ and successor to Peter, he called down God—to fill the people of Poland, to “confirm” their place in history and their ancient choice of Christ, to confirm as it were that their history was real and right and unchangeable—even unchangeable by communists.
So it was a redeclaration of the Polish spirit, which is a free spirit. And those who were there went home a different people, a people who saw themselves differently, not as victims of history but as strugglers for Christ.
Another crucial thing happened, after the mass was over. Everyone who was there went home and turned on the news that night to see the pictures of the incredible crowd and the incredible pope. But state-controlled TV did not show the crowds. They did a brief report that showed a shot of the pope standing and speaking for a second or two. State television did not acknowledge or admit what a phenomenon John Paul’s visit was, or what it had unleashed.
The people who had been at the mass could compare the reality they had witnessed with their own eyes with the propaganda their media reported. They could see the discrepancy. This left the people of Poland able to say at once and together, definitively, with no room for argument: It’s all lies. Everything this government says is a lie. Everything it is is a lie.
Whatever legitimacy the government could pretend to, it began to lose. One by one the people of Poland said to themselves, or for themselves within themselves: It is over.
And when 10 million Poles said that to themselves, it was over in Poland. And when it was over in Poland, it was over in Eastern Europe. And when it was over in Eastern Europe, it was over in the Soviet Union. And when it was over in the Soviet Union, well, it was over.
* * *
All of this was summed up by a Polish publisher and intellectual named Jerzy Turowicz, who had known Karol Wojtyla when they were young men together, and who had gone on to be a supporter of Solidarity and member of Poland’s first postcommunist government. Mr. Turowicz, remembering the Blonie field and the Pope’s visit, told Ray Flynn, at the time U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, “Historians say World War II ended in 1945. Maybe in the rest of the world, but not in Poland. They say communism fell in 1989. Not in Poland. World War II and communism both ended in Poland at the same time—in 1979, when John Paul II came home.”
And now he is dead. It is fitting and not at all surprising that Rome, to its shock, has been overwhelmed with millions of people come to see him for the last time. The line to view his body in St. Peter’s stretched more than a mile. His funeral tomorrow will be witnessed by an expected two billion people, the biggest television event in history. And no one, in Poland or elsewhere, will be able to edit the tape to hide what is happening.
John Paul gave us what may be the transcendent public spiritual moment of the 20th century. “We want God.” The greatest and most authentic cry of the human heart.
They say he asked that his heart be removed from his body and buried in Poland. That sounds right, and I hope it’s true. They’d better get a big box.