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April 9, 2005
Column #1,232

       How Pope John Paul Fought Communism
     Stalin once sneered, "How many divisions has the Pope?"

     Enough to bring down the Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe without firing a shot! How was that possible?

     Pope John Paul II was a man of iron courage, deep prayer, a will of steel, profound Biblical knowledge, graced by an ability to inspire with his spoken or written words.

     The corrupt world of Communism was no match for this man, which it greatly underestimated. He saw the evils of Nazism replaced by the evils of Communism, leading him to believe that "the evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness in each person."

     Churches could not be built without government permission. Requests to build were not acted upon. The town of Nowa Huta was built as a new city outside of Krakow for the workers of a giant steel mill. But no church was allowed to be built. As a young bishop, Karol Wojtyla, 39, decided to defy the government by erecting a huge cross on a field, a precursor to a church, where he celebrated Christmas Mass in 1959.

     The next day, government workers tore down the cross. The next Christmas Karol (Charles) built another giant cross, and held an outdoor Mass. Again it was destroyed by the government. This process was repeated eight years until October, 1967 when he finally got permission to build a huge "Ark Church," an assertively modern structure shaped like a ship, decorated on the outside with two million polished stones from Polish river beds and a huge steel figure of the crucified Christ, forged at Nowa Huta Steelworks.

     "The redemption of mankind" he said means "assisting man to achieve the greatness he is meant to possess." That's how he helped build "a generation of confident young Catholics who would embody an ongoing cultural resistance to Marxism," wrote George Weigel in his landmark semi-authorized biography, "Witness to Hope."

     Months after he was elected Pope, John Paul returned to Poland in 1979. The government, initially opposed his return, and then allowed a two-day visit, which the Pope happily pushed up to a nine-day visit to six cities. He arrived on a pilgrimage dedicated to the ninth centenary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaw, a predecessor Bishop of Krakow.

     For 30 years, the government refused the Church access to radio and TV. Under pressure, it reluctantly agreed to coverage believing it might cut down the crowds at his  events. Of course, it did the opposite. As he descended from the plane, kissed the earth, he exclaimed, "Praised be Jesus Christ."

     Weigel writes, "Poland had been denied its history and culture by five years of Nazi occupation and then 33 years of communist hegemony. Now he, a son of Poland, would give his people back what was theirs by birthright." A third of the nation, 13 million Poles, saw him in person. Others saw him on TV declare that "Christianity must commit itself anew to the formation of the spiritual unity of Europe," divided, of course, by the Iron Curtain.

     In nine days Poland experienced a "psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis," as one observer put it. Millions felt that "we" are the society, the country is "ours" and the government is outnumbered. They experienced their individual dignity and collective authority for the first time, a revolution of the spirit. 

     The pilgrimage breathed courage into the Poles to create Solidarity, the first independent trade union, only months later. The government was so alarmed by its success that Solidarity was banned after 16 months, under pressure from Russia. The Pope returned to Poland in 1987, declaring "There's no freedom without Solidarity." It was an electrifying phrase, repeated by all.

     Within months strikes by miners sparked sympathy strikes across the nation. The government asked Lech Walesa, founder of Solidarity, to help bring things under control.

     That led to the first semi-free elections in February, 1989. This developed was lubricated behind the scenes, by John Paul developing a cooperative relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev.

     What gave the Pope such confidence and brilliance to push for change, but not so much as to spark a backlash (other than his near assassination, which might have been politically motivated)? Deep spirituality. John Paul began his day praying two or three hours a day, with a list of countries and people and causes.

     He felt God protected him to accomplish great things for Him.

     Hundreds of millions of people are free due to his inspiring actions on his belief that man is created in God's image. 

     There was no greater giant of the 20th Century.

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