One of the greatest moments in the history of faith was also one of the greatest moments in modern political history. It happened in June 1979.
Just eight months before, after dusk on Oct. 16, 1978, a cardinal had stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to say those towering, august words, “Habemus papem”—”We have a pope.” The cardinal pronounced the new pontiff’s name in Latin. Not everyone understood or could hear him, and the name sounded odd. For 456 years the church had been electing Italian popes. This didn’t sound Italian. The crowd was perplexed.
Then the new pope came out—burly, light-haired, broad cheekbones. He looked Slavic. He looked like a Pole! It was Karol Wojtylwa, the cardinal from Krakow. It was a breakthrough choice—so unexpected and unprecedented—and you knew as you watched that a whole new world was beginning. This was a former manual laborer who wore brown scruffy shoes, who was young (58) and vibrant (a hiker and kayaker). He was a writer, an intellectual who’d come up during the heroic era of the European priesthood, when to be a priest in a communist-controlled nation was to put not only your freedom at risk but your life.
Poland went wild with joy; Krakow took to the streets. The reaction was world-wide. They had vigils in the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago, and block parties in Boston.
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And here is the great moment of faith that became a great moment of history. John Paul II, naturally, wanted to return as pope to visit his homeland. This put the communist government in Warsaw in a bind. If they didn’t invite him, they’d look defensive and weak. If they did, he might spark an uprising that would trigger a Soviet invasion.
They invited John Paul to come on a “religious pilgrimage.” On June 2, 1979, he arrived at an airport outside Warsaw, walked down the steps of the plane, and kissed the tarmac. The government feared tens of thousands would line the streets for the motorcade into town.
More than a million came.
In a mass in the Old City, John Paul gave a great sermon. Why, he asked, had God lifted a Pole to the papacy? Why had Poland suffered for centuries under political oppression? Perhaps because Poland is “the land of a particularly responsible witness.” The Poles had been chosen to give witness, with humility, to the cross and the Resurrection. He asked the crowd if they accepted such an obligation.
“We want God,” they roared. “We want God!” This from a nation occupied by an atheist state.
John Paul said the great work of God is man, and the great redeemer of man is Christ. Therefore, “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!”
It was brilliant. He wasn’t asking for a revolution or an uprising, he wasn’t directly challenging the government. He just pointed out that God himself sees one unity in Europe, not an East and a West divided but one continent. And so must we all.
But it was what happened a week later, at the Blonie field outside Krakow, that led directly to 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was the event that made political history.
It was June 10, near the end of the trip. Everyone was tired. There was to be a last outdoor mass. The government had not allowed it to be publicized. But words spread, and two million people came, maybe three million. It was the biggest gathering in Polish history. Here John Paul took on communism more directly. He exhorted the crowd to receive the Holy Spirit. “I speak . . . 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 need this strength today more than any other period in our history. . . . You must be strong with love, which is stronger than death. . . . Never lose your spiritual freedom.”
The mass was stirring, with crowds saying, again, “We want God!” But here is the thing. Everyone at that mass went home and put on state-controlled television to see the coverage of the great event. They knew millions had been there, they knew what was said, they knew everyone there was part of a spiritual uprising. But state-run TV had nothing. State-run TV had a few people in the mud and a picture of the pope.
Everyone looked at the propaganda of the state, at its lack of truthfulness and its disrespect for reality, and they thought: It’s all lies. Everything the government says is a lie. The government itself is a lie.
The Solidarity movement took on new power. The Communist Party lost authority; the Polish government in time tottered, and by 1989 the Soviet Union itself was tottering.
Twenty-three years later, in an interview, the Solidarity leader Lech Walessa told me of how John Paul galvanized the movement for freedom: “We knew . . . communism could not be reformed. But we knew the minute he touched the foundations of communism, it would collapse.”
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John Paul went on to a fruitful papacy of historic length, 26 years. He travelled more than a million miles to 149 countries. He didn’t bring the world to the church, he brought the church to the world. He was shot and almost killed in 1981, survived and went to Rome’s Rebibbia Prison to make sure his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, understood he’d been forgiven. And at the end, sick with Parkinson’s, he did what statesmen don’t do: He made his suffering public, as if to say, “We who are imperfect, who are not beautiful, who are in pain—we too are part of the human race, and worthy of God’s love.” He insisted on the humanity of the weak, the wounded, the unborn.
And when he died, there was the miracle of the crowds. John Paul had been old and dying for a long time, and the Vatican knew he’d been forgotten. They didn’t plan for crowds.
But when he died, people came running. They dropped what they were doing and filled the streets of Rome, they got on trains and plans and Rome was engulfed.
Four million people came.
They travelled from every country in Europe and beyond, they had nowhere to sleep, they filled the streets carrying candles.
There had never been anything like it. Old Rome had seen its popes come and go, but the crowds came and wouldn’t leave until he was buried. And when his coffin was carried out and shown to them, they roared.
“Santo Subito!” they said. Make him a saint.
And now this weekend he will be beatified, a step toward sainthood. He will become Blessed John Paul the Second, and nobody will misunderstand his name.
Some will speak of mistakes and sins in his papacy, and they are right. But saints are first of all human, and their lives are always flawed, full of contradictions, and marked by stark failures. Yet they are individuals of heroic virtue. As he was.
Santo Subito. Make him a saint. And by the way, expect crowds.