The beginning of the end

September 16, 2019

The sixth in a series on the spiritual revolution behind the fall of communism thirty years ago:

Perhaps the greatest, most unexpected event of the 20th century was the non-violent fall of the Soviet Empire. How did that happen?

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of that empire, readily admitted that it would have been impossible without Pope John Paul II.

General Jaruzelski, the last communist ruler of Poland, reflected that the Pope’s visit to Warsaw in 1979 was the detonator that spread a revolution from Poland to the heart of the empire in Moscow.

For Vaclav Havel, the Pope’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland was ‘a miracle’, more important than anything other world leaders had done.

When Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978, the communist leadership of Poland had reason to fear. They knew him well. Twenty years earlier, they had backed his nomination as auxiliary Archbishop of Krakow. They knew him as intelligent, personable, open-minded, open to compromise, and not yet political nor radical. They thought he lacked organizing and leadership qualities and would be easily influenced. For these same reasons, Wojtyla ranked only seventh on Polish Primate Wyszynski’s list of candidates for the job.

Much later, General Jaruzelski admitted how much his Communist colleagues had underestimated Wojtyla by judging the bishops ahead of him on the list of candidates as not ‘state-friendly’. They pushed for Karol Wojtyla. “The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways,” he once joked.


Wojtyla was afraid of politics initially, say close friends. In the 70’s, however, he began to see that everything was political in a totalitarian state. His career developed within the spiritual climate shaped significantly by Cardinal Wyszynski who, imprisoned in 1953 by the communists, had spent his prison years writing books and planning a national strategy for pastoral renewal. After reinstatement in 1956, Wyszynski had launched the ‘Great Novena’, a nine-year initiative of spiritual renewal to culminate in 1966, the millennial celebration of Polish Christianity. Each year a theme (faith, the Ten Commandments, family life, the moral life, social justice…) became a focus of teaching across the nation. In the millennial year, the cardinal had drawn crowds of hundreds of thousands across the land in an unprecedented display of devotion to the Church and a revived sense of nationhood rooted in Christianity.

The ‘Great Novena’ was major turning point in the country’s struggle against communism. Among the renewal movements emerging to help lay moral foundations were the Oasis summer camps under the charismatic leadership of Father Blachnicki, (where YWAMers were among the speakers in the 70’s and 80’s).

Wojtyla’s own political journey is illustrated by the struggle to build a church in Nowa Huta, a town built by the Communists as a paradise for the workers of the Lenin Steelworks in the 1950’s. As the workers were assumed to be atheists, no church was included in the town’s plan. The workers thought otherwise. Wojtyla, as their bishop, fought on their behalf for their right to have a church. Year after year, he and other priests preached sermons and administered mass in the open field – summer and winter – where the church was supposed to be built. Crosses were set up in the designated area and bulldozed down at night, only to reappear days later. Eventually the authorities agreed to allow a church to be built – outside the town. Wojtyla compromised and agreed. Nearly twenty years after the first request for a permit, in May 1977, Karol Wojtyla consecrated the Ark Church, a symbol of the church saving the people through the storms of communist rule.


The following year, as the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch Pope Adrian VI (1522–1523), John Paul II declared from St Peters in Rome a message that struck fear in the hearts of Communist rulers: “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. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.”

While Poles everywhere lit up with hope when they heard of the election of ‘their’ pope, the Warsaw regime knew they now had a powerful enemy in Rome: able to arouse feelings of deep piety and patriotism across the whole Polish nation, able to expose the Communist lie, able to promote a true universalism, an alternative politics based on human created in God’s image, and a democracy truly representing the voice of the people. Too late they realised how much they had underestimated ‘their’ Karol Wojtyla.

John Paul II brought with him four personal convictions: a rejection of the artificial ‘Yalta’ division of east and west, as a grave injustice; a belief that west and east belonged together in a Europe as a body breathing with two lungs; a Polish patriotism, not as narrow nationalist but as an internationalist who believed Poland’s suffering, ‘crucified between two thieves’, would carry redemptive value for the whole world; and a belief that the impending dawn of the third millennium should be the occasion for the renewal of the human spirit based on ‘the truth about man’.

He planned his first pilgrimage to Poland for May 1979, the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Stanislaw, personally slain by the Polish king Bolesław II the Bold. Alarmed by the symbolism, the Communist regime refused an invitation. The Pope negotiated a visit one month later, in which he preached thirty-two sermons over nine days: about respect for basic human rights, including the right of a nation to freedom; and about the role of the church to help make men and women more devoted servants of each other, of their families and of their society. This visit, the first of several, was seen by many as the beginning of the end of the Yalta imperial system throughout Stalin’s empire.

What Havel described as ‘a miracle’ proved to be a political, psychological, moral, spiritual earthquake, a moment when millions of Poles decided to live ‘as if’ they were free. Within a year, some of them were to flesh out this new conviction in a movement of solidarity called Solidarność.

Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash said it in these words: “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism.”

Till next week,

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