Let's make this a Polish think piece weekend, shall we?
How many more lives lived in the darkness of the 20th Century were more amazing than that of the late St. Pope John Paul II? How many other names go at the very top of the list, especially if you are looking for women and men who were warriors for peace, dignity and true tolerance?
When looking at the fall of the materialistic world of Communist Eastern Europe and, even, the Soviet Union, the question I have always asked has been this: What did John Paul II and when did he do it?
Obviously, we know quite a bit about the dramas that took place out in the open, in front of -- literally -- millions of people. But do we really know what took place behind the scenes? If Poland started the dominos falling, what role did this great son of Poland play behind the scenes? Every few years, if seems, we learn more amazing details.
Another question: How did John Paul II fail to win the Nobel Peace Prize at some point during that era? Can you think -- in this weekend after Brexit -- of better symbol of the values of the post-Christian Europe than that strange fact?
So that brings me to this weekend think piece, via The Catholic Exchange. The headline: "Pope John Paul II & the Secret History of Europe." This short piece focuses on the contents of a new film, "Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism." Here is the trailer for that documentary:
It will not take long to read this piece. Much of what it has to say is familiar, to those who care about this pope and this history of his land.
But, frankly, how many journalists -- especially the young -- know this man's story? Here is a key slice of the essay. After the young drama student survives the Nazis, joins an underground seminary and becomes a priest, comes the central act of his life. The Nazis fell, replaced by the Soviets:
Karol Wojtyła survived. Not only did he survive, but the experiences of totalitarianism and the wars and terrors they provoked formed the basis of his thought and direction for the rest of his life. Paradoxically, they moved him away from these dogmas of hate to a Gospel of Love, from the lies of government regimes to a quest for the truth about the human person.
What is clear from the interviews and footage of the post-War years is the war against the Church that had come to Poland in 1920 was, from 1945, once more ignited in that land. The child of 1920 was now a man, then a priest, then bishop, eventually becoming a cardinal. The ideology that had tried to rid the world of his spiritual birthright now tried to curtail his activities, to hamper his ability to communicate; to stifle the words he spoke and even to manipulate him for its own ends.
All these attempts failed. Nowhere was this more exemplified than in the church of Nowa Huta. In the new Workers’ Paradise, built in the 1950s, there was to be no place of worship. The Communist ideal was to be incarnated in the bricks and mortar that framed the brave new world of those who lived in Nowa Huta; and, this ideal excluded any idea of God. Bishop Wojtyła was having none of this. Two decades later, a church stood in the Workers’ Paradise. It was -- it is -- a testament to the faith of Polish workers, but also a testimony to the tenacity of their pastor. In the end, he won this battle with the Communist authorities. Just a few months after the church’s final consecration, and as the pallium was laid on Wojtyła’s shoulders, battle would commence once more only this time the ‘godless zone’ was not simply one town but the many towns spread out as far as the eye could see from East Berlin to the Siberia.
The film captures well what happened next: the three visits of Wojtyła, the now reigning Pope to the officially atheistic Polish state. It records how each trip provoked both action and reaction and how the Polish government and its Soviet masters did not know how to deal with their consequences. How each visit gathered, then strengthened, and then released the pent-up desire for freedom within the hearts of a nation that had been united and transformed by the presence among them of the Slavic pope, this is illustrated well in the film’s use of archive footage -- in particular, in relation to the birth of Solidarity.
It was a life that truly transcended simplistic political labels.
But in the middle of it all was Poland, and the culture and values of Poland. Can modern Europe do to Poland and the workers of that deeply Catholic land what the Nazis and Soviets failed to do?