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October 18, 2003
Column #1,155

Pope's Role in Collapse of Communism

     President Reagan is often given credit for the collapse of Communism. However, Pope John Paul II had a far more important role.

     That is worth remembering on his 25th anniversary as Pope. He patiently nurtured freedom over a decade in Poland. It then took only months for all of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to fall in 1989.

     Reagan did say of the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." However, the Pope's visit to Poland, in 1979, before Reagan was elected, first breathed hope into his homeland. For 40 years, Poland suffered Nazi occupation followed by Russian atheistic domination.

     Months after becoming the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, he told a million Poles: "Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe...The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand Poland...There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland."

     The crowd shouted "We want God! We want God!"

     Fourteen months later strikes began in Gdansk led by Lech Walesa that spread across the country. Workers demanded free trade unions. That horrified local bishops, but John Paul sent a message directing them to "aid the nation in its struggle for daily bread, social justice and the safeguarding of its inviolable rights."

     The government gave in, allowing "Solidarity" to be an independent self-governing trade union. That "meant some form of power sharing. And power sharing meant the end of the totalitarian system," writes George Weigel in his definitive 990 page biography of the Pope, "Witness to Hope."

     Solidarity's freedom only lasted a year. Under Soviet pressure, Gen. Jaruzelski declared martial law and arrested Solidarity's leadership. He claimed he avoided Soviet intervention, and he kept in contact with John Paul - a subtle relationship that later made possible the transition from communism to democracy in 1989.

     President Reagan responded with a heavy-hand, imposing harsh economic sanctions without consulting Solidarity. He was stunned when the Pope and Polish bishops criticized him for penalizing the people without changing the situation. Reagan met with the Pope in 1982 and offered intelligence collaboration, but was turned down since John Paul had his own channels to help the Poles.

      However, the meeting gave rise to a myth that the two men had a secret "holy alliance" which resulted in the ultimate collapse of Communism.

     Far more effective was the Pope, in a return visit to his native land in 1983. His mood was somber as he came "to stand beneath the cross of Christ" with his countrymen "especially with those who are most acutely deprived of their freedom, of being wronged, of having their freedom trampled upon." John Paul insisted on meeting with Lech Walesa.

     When Jaruzelski met privately with the Pope, he later admitted "my legs were trembling and my knees knocking together. I had the subconscious sense that I am in the presence of greatness. Especially after I had seen those crowds, these millions falling on their knees."

     However, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Lech Walesa, not John Paul II.

     Although the Pope has made 102 foreign trips, traveling nearly 800,000 miles, Poland remained first in his heart. He returned in 1987 and publicly noted Jaruzelski often talked of his desire for "peace.." But he charged that peace within Poland required the granting of human rights. Society was composed of men and women who were the bearers of inalienable rights. The state existed for the good of society, not society for the state.

     At a Mass, he said the Eucharist built community out of cleansed consciences, crucial to renewing society. Poles had to free themselves "from (the) inheritance of hatred and egoism," and reject the belief that God is fiction and love is impotence, before they could reclaim their country in genuine freedom.

     On January 11, 1989, the Hungarian Communist regime allowed opposition political parties. A week later, Jaruzelski recognized Solidarity again, and said elections would be held, that were won by Solidarity candidates.

     Nine months later, I witnessed a million people demanding freedom nightly in Czechoslovakia which became free in ten days. A half million East Germans rallied in East Berlin, and the Berlin Wall fell, followed by the Soviet Union.

     John Paul II fearlessly stood up to entrenched power with courage, not weapons. And he persuaded people to demand their God-given freedom. Once Poland did so, others followed.

     Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, "preached a consistent message, a thoroughly Christian humanism, throughout more than fifty years of priestly ministry: you are greater than you imagine...By demonstrating, not merely asserting, that faith can transform the world, he helped restore a spiritual dimension to a history." writes Weigel.

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