It might be tempting to characterize Pope John Paul II as the political foe who vanquished communism. But that would be untrue. His position challenged communism in the metaphysical realm, not in the political arena. He understood that the error of communism lay in its fundamental understanding of man, who is not merely a unit of labor engaged in a perpetual class struggle, but a creature made in the image of God, with a soul and an eternal destiny.

With a soul forged in the crucible of conflict, St. John Paul II was uniquely prepared to confront communism. Poland lost World War II twice, first to the Nazis, and then to the communists; as a boy, Karol Wojtyła lived under the oppression of both. Long before he became Pope, Karol Wojtyła had concluded that the conflict with communism was ultimately a conflict in the realm of the spirit. Communism is unambiguously atheistic. Its premise is that man is a unit of labor, engaged in a class struggle which, after a bloody revolution, promises to produce a new man, perfected by political means. It promises the Beatific Vision, stripped of transcendence. Karol Wojtyła knew that man is made in the image of God, created for a purposeful life on earth, with an eternal destiny. Pope John Paul II lit a long spiritual fuse in Poland in 1979 which would burn for ten years across central and eastern Europe, exploding beneath the Berlin Wall in 1989. The aftershocks of this spiritual, moral, and political earthquake toppled the remaining shell of the Soviet Union in 1991.[1] While Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and President Ronald Reagan in America played crucial political and military roles in these events, Pope John Paul II was the spiritual leader of this Peaceful Revolution that shattered communism, freeing 400 million people.

From an early age, Karol Wojtyła learned that heroic courage was necessary to survive totalitarianism. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, his friends, both Jewish and Christian, disappeared as they stole through the dark streets of Warsaw to perform plays, Wojtyła had written. To become a priest, the only option was to join a clandestine seminary. Wojtyła experienced the personal courage of Archbishop Adam Sapieha, who at great risk to himself concealed his seminarians in his own residence. If any had been discovered, both he and they would have been shot on the spot. In fact, several of Wojtyła’s classmates were gunned down on the streets of Warsaw. Primate Stefan Wyszyński, another pillar of courage, refused to yield the authority to select priests for ordination, when the communists attempted to wrest this away from the Catholic Church in Poland. All the other communist countries had capitulated. Wyszyński was imprisoned for three years, rather than yield an inch. These demonstrations of spiritual fortitude shaped Wojtyła as a young priest. But he could not have imagined that he would be chosen in 1978 to head the Catholic Church as the Vicar of Christ. His election as Pope surprised everyone, including himself.

Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland Poland in June of 1979 was a pivotal event: nine days that would change the world.[2] Victory Square in Warsaw was transformed from a secular space to a sacred one when the people erected a fifty-foot cross and constructed a raised altar where the Pope would celebrate Mass. Colored bunting waved above the square and festooned nearly every window in the city. Warsaw was filled to overflowing with three million people pressing in from every street to try to get a glimpse of the Pope. From a hotel window high above the square, the Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek looked on nervously. What would the Pope say? What could he say?

Pope John Paul II told the people that his pilgrimage honored St. Stanislaus, who had died defending the Church in Poland. His death and their lives are all part of the pilgrimage that Poles were making through the history of the Church, the Pope explained. Just as Christ sent the apostles to be witnesses, has not “Poland become now a land of particularly responsible witness?” he asked the people.[3] They all knew that for 123 years, Poland had vanished from the maps of Europe, carved up by her aggressive neighbors. The Polish people had clung to their Catholic faith as the sole source of their identity, and they had been resurrected as a nation. The Pope asked them now: Is this not a fitting place “to proclaim Christ with singular humility but also with conviction? . . . To read again the witness of his Cross and his Resurrection?”[4] Then he challenged them: “But if we accept all that I have dared to affirm in this moment, how many great duties and obligations arise? Are we capable of them?”[5]

The implications of what the Pope was saying began to sink in. The people grasped the importance of this moment in history, in this nation of Poland, as a witness to Christ. The Pope was challenging them to affirm their faith, here and now. A ripple of applause swept through the square, then another even stronger—then applause erupted into waves that grew thunderous, as hundreds of thousands of witnesses gave this sign of their faith. The Pope did not attempt to continue with his message but stood with his hand upheld as an affirmation of the people. Together they recognized the significance of this cathartic expression in a country where the communist regime had prohibited any overt public manifestation of their faith in Christ. For a full fourteen minutes, the people applauded and cheered. Some chanted, “We want God! We want God in our schools! We want God in the family! We want God in books! We want God! We want God!”[6]

“The people are preaching with me,” said the Pope, with a smile. “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe,” he continued. “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In Him it becomes the history of salvation.”[7] As the Pope concluded, he prayed:

I cry from all the depths of this Millennium,
I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:
Let your Spirit descend,
Let your Spirit descend,
And renew the face of the earth,
The face of this land.[8]

The Holy Spirit descended on Poland at that moment as a palpable fire that would ignite the nation.

***

During that evening’s visit with President Henryk Jabłoński and party leader Edward Gierek, the Pope told them that a nation has the right to formation of its own culture and civilization and that he would be watching them for any infringement on the autonomy of the Polish people and their culture. He warned them that he would report any violations of human rights. It was only the first day of the Pope’s homecoming, and it was already clear who had the upper hand. The Polish people were now remembering their identity as a Catholic nation at the core, with a communist government that had strapped itself on their back.[9]

John Paul II could not visit Poland without returning to visit his beloved “Black Madonna of Częstochowa,” the icon of the Virgin Mary in the Jasna Góra Monastery, whose protective powers were credited with thwarting military attacks and providing gifts of healing and solace to pilgrims. The name “Black Madonna” came from the tempera and wax with which this icon of Mary was painted in the first century, now mingled with centuries of soot from candles burned beneath her, which had rendered the image inextricably blackened by the loving homage. Karol Wojtyła’s father had brought his nine-year-old son to her when the boy’s mother died, telling Karol, “Your earthly mother has left you, but this mother will never leave you.”[10] The boy had returned often to pray fervently for direction in his life.

On this visit, the newly elected Pope met at Jasna Góra Monastery with all the Polish bishops, to whom he pointed out Poland’s unique place in modern history, as an example of extreme suffering inflicted by ideological aggression. As a bishop, Karol Wojtyła had seen the problems of modern Church and their universal dimensions.[11] But Poland had been unique in its response: “Faced with that crisis of humanism in an acute form, Poland had responded by intensifying its Christian faith. This was a lesson with resonance beyond Poland’s borders.”[12] At the deepest level, the source of ethics is what binds a culture together, he told them, and the shared “spiritual genealogy” is what makes Europe cohesive, not economic or political systems. Without ever mentioning the word “Yalta,” the Pope soared above the post-1945 division of Europe and the Iron Curtain, affirming the transcendent unity of all Europeans in the Christian heritage they share. This affirmation of the spiritual unity that transcends borders and political authority was bold.

On the final day of the Pope’s first pilgrimage to Poland, he addressed more than one million of his countrymen who had gathered across the open plain of the Krakow Commons. To this wildly enthusiastic crowd he preached on the Great Commission that Christ gave his disciples. “You are receiving a new anointing of the Holy Spirit” the Pope told them, “and are being sent out to make disciples in your country.”[13] He cautioned his countrymen to temper their enthusiasm with prudence. “[T]he future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be nonconformist,” he said, emphasizing the word “mature.”[14] In every talk throughout his pilgrimage, the Pope had emphasized dignity and restraint as necessary qualities for followers of Christ. This message was received and understood.

As the Pope reluctantly said goodbye, he wiped away tears. Many of his countrymen did the same.

***

For nine days, the entire nation of Poland had suspended its normal life to be spiritually taught and transformed. One third of the nation, thirteen million people, saw the Pope in person and virtually everyone else saw him on television or heard him on the radio. His message lifted up the people of Poland and called forth the memory of their authentic history, culture, and identity. The Polish people heard and remembered who they really were. By bringing millions of these people together publicly, the Pope gave them courage and dispersed the rule of fear and terror. Bogdan Szajkowski, a Polish political scientist, described the phenomenon of the Pope’s visit as a “psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis.”[15] Adam Michnik, a prominent dissident and non-Catholic, characterized the experience as “a great lesson in dignity.”[16] He was struck by the way the Pope had spoken compellingly to believers and nonbelievers alike, appealing to their “ethos of sacrifice, in whose name our grandfathers never stopped fighting for national human dignity.”[17] John Paul II had called for a thoroughgoing moral renewal without even mentioning the communists. Instead, he pointed the people toward a deeper moral level to recognize that they would be culpable if they were to allow their country to continue as it was.[18]

The Polish theologian Józef Tischner declared that “revolution is an occurrence in the realm of the spirit.”[19] This was indeed the first hour of the Peaceful Revolution. After scarcely seven months in the Holy See, John Paul II’s message of truth, dignity, and restraint lit a long fuse in Poland that would burn brightly, igniting neighboring countries to spread throughout the entire East Bloc. In ten years, it would detonate beneath the Berlin Wall. As George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II put it, “These nine days in June 1979 were when the twentieth century turned.”[20]

***

Word of the Pope’s remarkable visit traveled around the globe, to the delight of many people and the dismay of others. People in the neighboring communist countries watched in astonishment as the enormous crowds gathered in Poland and were not dispersed by Soviet bullets and tanks. The 1953 protests in East Germany, uprisings in Hungary in 1956, and the Czechoslovakia in 1968, had all ended in bloodshed when the Russians crushed the resistance. But if millions of Polish people could gather openly like this in 1979, could it be possible in other countries as well? Since these events in Poland were religious gatherings and not political protests, and because they had remained peaceful, the communist leaders had not found sufficient provocation to crush them. But the Russians uneasily watched for any signs of losing their grip across the East Bloc, especially in Poland, where unwelcome change had been unleashed.

One of the manifestations of this change in Poland was the birth of Solidarność, or Solidarity, the labor movement that galvanized workers across the nation. In August 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk rallied behind a handful of workers unfairly dismissed from their jobs and went on strike. This sparked resistance that blazed into brushfires across Poland, quickly growing into a popular movement that called for rights for workers and limitation on the communist powers. The Pope’s visit had brought together workers, intellectuals and theologians in the Catholic Church, who discovered they were all committed to the higher vision John Paul II had articulated. After being tutored in the language of civil discourse by the Pope, they found that they could speak to one another across class differences and sustain disagreements in opinion without becoming disagreeable. The workers of Solidarity invited in these intellectuals and theologians to help them articulate their demands in the Gdansk strike and think through a broader vision of a just society. They also invited priests to come and celebrate Mass and hear confessions, nurturing the religious roots of their movement.

As the strikes spread across the country, the scope of the demands by the strike committee broadened as well, becoming a veritable Bill of Rights for workers. By its own definition, Solidarity’s vision was primarily a moral one. As Lech Wałesa, the leader of Solidarity put it, “What we had in mind was not only bread, butter, and sausage but also justice, democracy, truth, legality, human dignity, freedom of convictions, and the repair of the republic.”[21] When it appeared that the Polish regime was deadlocked with Solidarity, John Paul II gently but firmly intervened, speaking on Vatican Radio to support responsible efforts of the workers to bring peace and justice to Poland. After an 18-day standoff, Solidarity won agreement in Gdansk for their demands: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and independent publications, religious freedom, access to mass media, release of political prisoners, prohibition of reprisals for religious beliefs, transparent public information on the socio-economic situation, and the right for all groups to participate in discussions on reform. With this agreement, they blew a hole in the Iron Curtain. In September, delegates from throughout Poland streamed into the organizational meeting of the new national union, which signed up three million members in the first three days. As Solidarity’s numbers and influence blazed high, the communists were truly alarmed—not only in Poland, but also in Russia.

In December 1980, Moscow called for “radical steps” to end the “anti-Soviet activity” in Poland.[22] The Kremlin was fed up with the Polish insurrection and was prepared to put it down by force. American satellite images from above showed clearly the tanks and troops massing on Poland’s eastern border. A mole conveyed crucial information to the Americans: Col. Ryszard Kukliński, a high-ranking member of the Polish Defense Ministry who served as an aide to Gen. Jaruzelski in Poland and liaison to the Soviet commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact Joint Command, was incensed by what the Russians had done to his country. At great personal danger, he had been conveying information to the American leadership, confirming now that a massive invasion was meticulously planned. He reported that a “two-day campaign was to move into Poland with more than a dozen Soviet divisions, two Czech divisions, and an East German division, followed by nine more Soviet divisions the next day.”[23] Solidarity’s leadership was to be court martialed and executed by firing squad.

The Pope was well informed on these plans by a number of sources, and he immediately took action, writing a personal letter to Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, imploring him not to invade. The Pope also contacted Solidarity and urged them to show restraint. The United States factored into the equation, with newly elected Ronald Reagan, a staunch anti-communist, taking office as President in a month. According to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, outgoing President Jimmy Carter sent a message to the Russians through the hotline that an invasion of Poland would evoke a strong response from the United States. India’s Indira Gandhi, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and French President Giscard d’Estaing all joined the US in strongly urging the Soviets not to invade Poland. At the brink of the Warsaw Pact invasion planned for December 8, 1980, Russia backed down, presumably because of these voices. So the Russians decided to use other means.

***

In Rome on May 13, 1981, while riding through St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Bulgarian operative. The trained assassin had been waiting all day for his chance. He used a semiautomatic handgun, firing four bullets at close range, hitting the Pope in his hand and abdomen. The Pope collapsed into the arms of his aides, while a tough nun tackled the assassin, thwarting his attempted escape. As the ambulance rushed through Rome’s crowded streets, Fr. Stanisław Dziwsz administered last rites to the bleeding Pope. The attending physician said the bullet that cut through the abdomen missed his main abdominal vein by five or six millimeters. Had that vein been severed, the Pope would have bled to death in five minutes. When the bullet hit the Pope’s finger, its trajectory was deflected, so that it narrowly missed damaging his spinal cord and paralyzing him from the waist down. The Pope later said, “One hand aimed the bullet, and another guided it.”[24]

It is inconceivable that a Bulgarian assassin would have dared to undertake such a crime alone. Several subsequent investigations unearthed trails of evidence leading back to the Kremlin. George Weigel, the biographer of the Pope, writes:

By fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979 authorizing the use of all available means to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.[25]

The KGB was given a written directive to embark on active measures in the West to counteract the effects of John Paul II.[26] Shortly after that November decree, the assassin Mehmet Ali Agca somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison and showed up for training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. After meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer, he was taken to a luxury hotel in Bulgaria, courtesy of Bulgarian secret services. He later went to Zurich, apparently to work out the final details for the assassination, which was planned for May 13, 1981.[27] According to historian Andrzej Grajewski, the decree of November 1979, together with the directive to the KGB, indicate “the Soviet political leadership and the Soviet intelligence considered the Pope the single greatest threat to their position.”[28]

Did the Russians give the order to murder the Pope? James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA, says there was an “extraordinarily high” likelihood that the Bulgarians took their orders from Moscow. “That they would undertake it on their own is almost unimaginable,” he says.[29] As CIA Director, William Casey authorized an investigation which produced a highly classified report. According to a person who has read it, the report concludes that the Soviets ordered the assassination of the Pope.[30] In 2006, a special commission of the Italian Parliament concluded “beyond any reasonable doubt” that “the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul II.”[31] Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize winning author on communism, agrees without reservation. “Of course, they tried to assassinate him,” she says. “They understood exactly how dangerous he was as an ideological force.”[32] Applebaum concludes, “The fact that the Soviet Union tried to assassinate John Paul II through the mechanism of a Bulgarian assassin tells you exactly how frightened of him they were.”[33]

***

Having failed to decapitate the spiritual leader of the Polish resistance, the Soviet leaders put the screws to Poland’s leader to put down Solidarity with force. If he would not, they would, the Russians threatened. General Wojciech Jaruzelski began making plans in the summer of 1981 to declare martial law.[34] The plan was to liquidate Solidarity in a swift clampdown, imprisoning or executing all the leaders of the movement throughout the country. In the middle of the icy, frozen night of December 13, 1981, Polish military forces were turned on their own citizens. Military troops sealed the country’s borders, cut all communication with the outside world, and put up roadblocks on all major thoroughfares. Soldiers swooped in to arrest Solidarity activists, imprisoning 5,000 of them in one night.

The next day, President Ronald Reagan called Pope John Paul II to ask him how the US could best help. Because the communists controlled all the communications networks and printing presses throughout Poland, Solidarity members needed ways to communicate with each other and to inform the people of Poland. Facilitating communication was one tangible thing the US could do for the Polish people. Through clandestine means, US fax machines began to turn up all over Poland, which in the early 80s were a breakthrough in technology. These allowed the members of Solidarity communicate with each other quickly, without interference. Solidarity sympathizers in the US sent copiers to the Vatican, which could get them to the Polish people. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz tells the story that William Casey stepped in to provide $90,000 from his personal bank account to buy printing presses for Poland via a bank transfer in London.[35] Although Casey headed the CIA and the Reagan Administration was committed to helping Solidarity, the institutional drag was impeding progress to supply these through the agency. So Casey provided the funds from his own bank account and asked his son-in-law Owen Smith to arrange to have the printing presses delivered to the Vatican. “The Holy Father will know exactly what to do with them,” he told Smith.[36]

Solidarity was forced to go underground. Activists who had escaped imprisonment assumed new names and identities and wore disguises when they went out. Between December 13, 1981 and March 1985, seventy-eight people reportedly died at the hands of the Polish police and secret service. One of them was a priest—Father Jerzy Popiełuszko—who had become the spiritual face of the Solidarity movement. The workers thronged to hear him and to attend Masses he offered in their shipyards. He fearlessly told crowds that when the authorities were in the wrong, “defiance of authority was an obligation of the heart, of religion, manhood, and nationhood.”[37] But he advocated nonviolent resistance, urging the people to “overcome evil with good.” He was monitored, interrogated, and threatened with violence, but he continued. “Stand fast to the end,” he preached, “just as the apostles did—even unto death.” In his last Mass, Fr. Popiełuszko prayed for the people to be free from fear but also from the desire for revenge.[38] That night, Polish secret police stopped his car, beat him to death, bound his body in chains, and dumped it into the Vistula River.

Father Popiełuzsko’s body was recovered eleven days later. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. There, the weeping crowd repeated with the priests, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And then again: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Three times they spontaneously repeated that line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive. . . .”[39] This response to the murderers was one manifestation of the spiritual maturity the people of Poland had achieved.
When Pope John Paul II came to Poland for the burial of Father Popiełuzsko, he knelt at the marble slab marking the grave of this new martyr and wept.

***

From the exuberant first visit of John Paul II as Pope to the violent murder of Fr. Popiełuszko, the people of Poland had experienced the joyful mysteries and the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lady of Częstochowa, but their journey was not over yet. In this confrontation with communism, the character of the Polish people was being forged. Just as the young Karol Wojtyła was shaped by his experience of totalitarianism under the Nazi occupation and then under the iron fist of the communists, his countrymen were now developing fortitude in their faith. Pope John Paul II visited Poland several more times during the time of martial law. The harsh clampdown prevented huge crowds like those of his first visit. But his love and encouragement bolstered up his people, nevertheless. He raised his voice on violations of human rights, shining the bright light of inquiry on people who had been silenced. Together, the Pope and international leaders successfully obtained the freedom of a significant number of political prisoners.

The Polish people kept the vision alive, producing clandestine journals, newspapers, books, plays, and works of art. They cheerfully exchanged their works across the borders with their neighbors. Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Polish, and East German intellectuals and theologians continued the conversation about creating a free and just society, with a commitment to nonviolent resistance. They eagerly read the samizdat [40] copies of Solzhenitsyn’s books and Václav Havel’s plays, as well as the encyclicals of John Paul II. In each of these countries, a small group of people served as a spiritual sparkplug for nonviolent resistance to communism. In Czechoslovakia, the Catholic Church had been particularly brutally persecuted, but Václav Benda and Fr. Václav Maly spearheaded the movement that included the playwright Václav Havel, and Augustin Návratil, who collected thousands of signatures to petition for religious freedom.

In East Germany, a Lutheran pastor named Christian Führer began in 1983 to gather people in the Nikolaikirche (Nicholas Church) in Leipzig every Monday at five o’clock to pray for peaceful change in their country. For the next seven years, people gathered here for Friedensgebete, Prayers for Peace, becoming the spiritual sparkplug of the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany.[41] This group grew from a handful of people to 70,000 on October 9, 1989, when they marched on the streets armed only with candles and prayer to face down armed troops under orders to shoot them. Thousands of units of blood had been flown in to treat the expected shooting victims. Parents were warned to pick up their children early from school because gunfire was expected. Ashen-faced people begged Pastor Führer to cancel the prayer service to avoid civil war. Leipzig was a powder keg ready to ignite with a spark. Forty thousand troops were deployed throughout the city, as well as tanks, water cannons, and attack dogs. But Pastor Führer did not back down. He began the service promptly at five o’clock. The crowd overflowed into the streets, where through speakers, the people heard the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the peacemakers”—followed by the petitions of the people, and prayers for all the countries struggling under communism. Then the people in the Nikolaikirche received the benediction.

Something remarkable happened at that moment. Pastor Führer says the Holy Spirit descended on all the people as a tangible presence of peace. “This was extraordinary, because not many of these people were Christians,” he says. “But they behaved as if they had grown up with the Sermon on the Mount.”[42] They linked each other’s arms, lit small candles to carry, and walked out between the soldiers lining the street, purposefully and peacefully. Although the soldiers’ guns were loaded and the tank motors were running, this march proceeded peacefully around the ring of Leipzig for three whole hours. No one so much as threw a stone through a window. No one knocked off the cap of a policeman. Not one person gave the soldiers any reason to open fire. And at the end of that night, the forces of peace had won. Thousands of people followed their example all over the East Bloc in the next days and weeks. One month later, the people of Leipzig assembled to walk again, this time to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of violence against the Jews leading up to WWII. That night as the people walked through Leipzig, they prayed asking forgiveness for what the Germans did to the Jews in the Second World War. That night, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.

Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II proclaimed, “Be not afraid! Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” He advocated restraint, maturity, and wisdom to resist communism with Christ-like behavior. In every nation across the East Bloc, a small nucleus of leaders, motivated by their faith in Christ, led the resistance to communism by example, making this the Peaceful Revolution. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox agreed on a non-negotiable strategy of peaceful resistance. The people they led adopted peaceful means to effect change, facing down oppressive regimes that had held people captive through terror and fear. An unforeseeable sequence of events began unraveling the power of the Soviet Union. But there was nothing inevitable about a peaceful outcome, as the slaughter in Tiananmen Square of China in June of 1989 demonstrated.

Poland was the first country to break away in 1989, the annus mirabilis, holding its first free elections in June. Solidarity candidates swept the slate for election to the newly formed Senate, as well as all the available seats in the Sejm, the lower house. Hungary proclaimed their independence by snipping the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain in August of 1989, letting people from the East Bloc cross into freedom in the West. After the showdown in Leipzig in October, demonstrators across East Germany peacefully deposed Communist leader Erich Honecker. The Berlin Wall opened November 9, 1989. Czechoslovakia won its freedom in a series of events so smooth they earned the name the Velvet Revolution. On December 29, Václav Havel could tell his people that only six months before, he had been in prison, but through events he could only call miraculous, he had become the President of Czechoslovakia. Romania was the only exception in this otherwise peaceful sequence. The Romanians took Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, put them up against a wall, and shot them.

Using a little poetic license, one could say that what took ten years in Poland, took ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in East Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia,[43] and ten hours in Romania. This moral, spiritual, and political earthquake would continue to rumble throughout the rest of the Soviet Union, freeing the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine, ultimately shaking the foundations of Russia as well. In 1991, the Soviet Union creaked, heaved a last gasp, and collapsed. On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union.

***

It might be tempting to characterize Pope John Paul II as the political foe who vanquished communism. But that would be untrue. His position challenged communism in the metaphysical realm, not in the political arena. His message was never one advocating political positioning. Rather, he understood that the error of communism lay in its fundamental understanding of man, who is not merely a unit of labor engaged in a perpetual class struggle, as Marx claimed, but a creature made in the image of God, with a soul and an eternal destiny. John Paul II never took his eyes off God, his heart and mind like a compass pointing to true North. He encouraged people to love God more deeply, to cherish relationships with the people they love, and to obey God with abandon. He challenged communism on his knees, praying to God, “Thy will be done.”

Whittaker Chambers was once a communist agent but changed his mind and returned his allegiance to America. He said the attraction of communism was as old as Eden, the promise that “Ye shall be as gods.” There have been two faiths on trial on the twentieth century, said Chambers: “faith in man” and “faith in God.” Communism is the vision of man without God. John Paul II knew this was true, deep in his bones, having lived under the lash of totalitarianism. His answer to communism was to overcome evil with good, to answer its threats and violence with faith and nonviolence. By going straight to the deepest truth about the nature of man, his intrinsic dignity, and his capacity for good, John Paul II inspired the better angels of every person who was honestly seeking Truth. And in so doing, he sparked the Peaceful Revolution that shattered communism by transcending it.

This essay first appeared in the St. Austin Review (May/June 2020). 

Please visit the Candles Behind the Wall website for the author’s video interviews of those who risked their freedom and their lives to resist Communism.

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Notes:

[1] This is George Weigel’s appraisal in his masterful description of these events in Central Eastern Europe: The Final Revolution (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992).

[2] For an excellent overview, see the film “Nine Days that Changed the World,” Citizens United Productions.

[3] Quotes are taken from the text of the Pope’s sermon, which is at www.vatican.va., “Homily in Victory Square, Warsaw,” June 2, 1979.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alexander Tomsky, “John Paul in Poland,” Religion in Communist Lands, vol. 7, no.3, autumn 1979; Radio Free Europe Research, The Pope in Poland; reports by Neal Ascherson and Peter Hebblethwaite in the Spectator, 9 and 16 June 1979. Quoted in Timothy Garton Ash, Solidarity: The Polish Revolution, 3rd ed., (London: Granta Books, 1983), 32.

[7] Pope’s sermon, which is at www.vatican.va., “Homily in Victory Square, Warsaw,” June 2, 1979.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stalin is said to have remarked that trying to make Poland a communist nation was like trying to put a saddle on a cow.

[10] Quoted in film, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.”

[11] Quoted in Weigel, George, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), 311.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 319.

[14] Ibid., 321.

[15] Bogdan Szajkowski, Next to God—Poland: Politics and Religion in Contemporary Poland (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 72.

[16] Adam Michnik, “A Lesson in Dignity,” in Letters from Prison and Other Essays, (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 160.

[17] Ibid., 164.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarność (London: Granta Books, 1983), 292.

[20] George Weigel in film, Nine Days that Changed the World, Citizens United Productions.

[21] Ash, The Polish Revolution, 232.

[22] Peter Finn, “Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist leader, dies at 90,” The Washington Post, 25 May 2014.

[23] Weigel, Witness to Hope, 405.

[24] Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, A Life with Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope, (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 135.

[25] George Weigel, “The Quiet Hours of Leonid Brezhnev,” Catholic World Report, July 17, 2019.

[26] A photocopy of the decree and accompanying documents in the original Russian were given to George Weigel by Andrzej Paczkowski, who obtained them from Andrzej Paczkowski. Translation by Ashley Morrow. Quoted in Weigel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (New York: Crown Publishing, 2010), 115.

[27] Weigel, “The Quiet Hours of Leonid Brezhnev.”

[28] Quoted by George Weigel in The End and the Beginning, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2010), 115.

[29] Quoted in interview in the film “Nine Days That Changed the World,” Citizens United Productions.

[30] Paul Kengor and Robert Orlando, The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2019), 163.

[31] See Philip Pullella, “Soviet Union Ordered Shooting: Italy Commission,” Reuters March 2, 2006. Also Edward Pentin, “Soviets Wanted Pope Killed,” National Catholic Register, March 12-18, 2006, A1.

[32] Kengor and Orlando, The Divine Plan, 168.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Weigel, End and Beginning, 129.

[35] Kengor and Orlando, 157.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Michael Kaufman, Mad Dreams, Saving Graces: Poland: A Nation in Conspiracy (New York: Random House, 1989), 141.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Antonin Lewek, “New Sanctuary of Poles: The Grave of Martyr—Father Jerzy Popieluszko” (Warsaw, 1986), 2-3. Quoted in Weigel, The Final Revolution.

[40] Self-published in the East Bloc, typically with home-made presses.

[41] This story of Leipzig comes from the author’s interviews in 1990-92 in Leipzig. Their stories, along with more than one hundred others from throughout the former Soviet Union, have been compiled in the book, Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution that Shattered Communism (Eerdmans, 1993). A new edition is soon to be published.

[42] Author’s interview with Pastor Christian Führer in Leipzig.

[43] Timothy Garton Ash said it first, when he was in Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution.

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