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by Dick VirdenIn his first year in office Pope Francis has become a rock star who inspires hope among millions, believers and non-believers alike. Time Magazine made him Man of the Year, and other honors and accolades have come his way from all around the globe. The Argentine-born Pope’s sure-footed performance — and the enthusiastic popular response he engenders — recall the early days of a recent predecessor, John Paul II, who shook the world with a pivotal return to his Polish homeland 35 years ago this June.

That historic event doesn’t seem that long ago to me.  I was serving then at our embassy in Warsaw and remember vividly the euphoria in Poland that week as the first Slavic pontiff awed and lifted up his countrymen with his charismatic persona and message of faith and hope. “Be not afraid,” he told them, and suddenly a people beaten down by Nazi subjugation of incredible cruelty during World War II followed by more than three decades of brutal and corrupt rule imposed by Moscow were joyful and reinvigorated.

Poet Russell Lowell might well have been writing of the mood in Poland at that moment when he asked, “And what is so rare as a day in June? Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it; we are happy now, because God wills it.”

Poles were clearly heartened, of course, that one of their own had been selected as the first non-Italian to lead the Roman Catholic Church in five centuries. But it was more than simple pride or patriotism.  Individual citizens could now see that they had lots of company in identifying with the new pontiff and the values he stood for, not those of Moscow or communism. Many could begin to sense, too, that it was that the latter that would one day end up on the ash heap of history.

The Pope began his journey with a solemn mass in the historic main square in Warsaw, then called Victory Square and at other times Pilsudski Square, Saxon Square and Adolf Hitler Platz. At least a million people attended, some say three million; the rest of the country watched on television, some on their knees in front of their sets. (In negotiating the timing and terms of the visit, flummoxed Polish authorities had agreed to televise the Mass, probably in an effort to hold down in-person attendance. They also directed state television to aim their cameras to make it look as though the crowds were small and consisted mainly of the elderly and clergy. None of that or other efforts to contain the damage worked.)

I felt very privileged indeed to be on the scene — courtesy of the invitation and press pass I wrangled as Press Attaché — and to watch John Paul II electrify the multitude. Young (just turned 59 the month before), vigorous, confident, and at home, he commanded that stage like the trained actor he was.

One of the Pope’s core themes was that  “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe.” There could be no more direct challenge to the leaders who were then ruling his beloved country in the name of an avowedly anti-religion philosophy. Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the edge of the same central square, the Pontiff saluted all those who died “for our freedom and yours,” pointedly reaching out to include the Jewish community that perished in the adjacent Warsaw Ghetto.

An estimated 15 million people — almost half the population — bore witness to their faith by turning out to join John Paul II at his stops around the country that week. Their profound new sense of solidarity would soon translate into political upheaval, confirming the worst fears of regime leaders, who’d agreed to the papal visit only because they had no real choice. How could they deny Poland’s most famous son, the pride of the nation, an opportunity to return home?

Within a year of the Papal visit, a powerful trade union/protest movement — appropriately called “Solidarnosc” — would burst on the scene. It began on the Baltic coast, in Gdansk, where an unemployed electrician named Lech Walesa jumped over a shipyard wall and into history.   The gathering threat to their legitimacy eventually prompted communist party leaders to impose martial law in an effort to hold back the tide. They failed. Within a decade, the seemingly invincible communist system was swept away, in Poland and elsewhere in the region.

The Pope driving through the streets of Krakow, where he studied and served as Cardinal.
People waiting for his motorcade to pass through the streets of Krakow, while clergy direct traffic.

That the 1979 Papal visit would prove to be such a transformative event was would have been beyond the hopes of the throngs that accompanied John Paul II everywhere his pilgrimage took him that week,  but it was clear we were seeing something great, powerful, historic — good. No one could have imagined what would come next, but everyone knew life would not continue on as before. The facts on the ground had changed, and the hitherto all-powerful regime would be on the defensive until its demise.

Even in the face of unspeakable atrocities such as Auschwitz, which the Pope visited later in the week, he reminded his followers that evil had not carried the day then and would never defeat the human spirit. The sentiment was similar to what Novelist William Faulkner said in accepting his Novel Prize for literature three decades earlier: “Man will not only endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Closing his homily in Warsaw on the first day of his journey, John Paul II implored God to  “let your spirit descend; let your spirit descend; and renew the face of the earth; the face of this land. ”

And so it did. It’s now 35 years since that stirring week, and both the world and the papacy are in very different places. John Paul II would go on to make 102 more trips abroad — more than all his predecessors combined — and lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics for another quarter century. But none of his future trips could surpass the drama or the transformative power of that pivotal 1979 confrontation that shifted the balance between faith and oppression and began the end of the Cold War.

The challenges Pope Francis confronts are very different from those John Paul II faced in Poland. For Francis, internal rot in the Church cries out for reform. Enduring poverty and ever worsening economic and social inequity also demand urgent attention. For the Church, it means coming home in a different sense.  Given the new Pontiff’s personal modesty, humility and lifelong concern for the poor, he appears to be the man for these times, just as John Paul II was for the closing chapter in the Cold War.

After his stay in Warsaw on that 1979 trip home, the Pope continued his pilgrimage to other cities and shrines critical to the history of the country and the Roman Catholic Church. He spent the final three days in the region of Krakow, where he’d studied and served as Cardinal, and near where he’d grown up, in the small town of Wadowice. What follows below, verbatim, is an internal report I wrote in the days immediately following the Pope’s return to Rome. It describes what it felt like at the time, without knowing what would follow for the man, his church, or his native land.

(Begin June 12, 1979, memorandum, “On the Road with John Paul II in Poland.”)

The following impressions are drawn from my travel in the Krakow area for the first three days of Pope John Paul II’s visit there:

Decorations: All along the route from Warsaw through Radom and Kielce to Krakow, homes and other buildings, roadside shrines and crosses were decorated with white, yellow and blue bunting, flags and pennants welcoming the Pontiff. Similarly, driving back from Oswiecim late June 7, small lighted shrines and pictures of the Pope could be seen in many dwellings along the way. Clearly, most Poles were prepared to demonstrate where they stood, and the regime did not dare object. As one Pole observed, if the regime took down any of the displays, the people would put up even more. Even the Polish-Russian friendship society on the hallowed main square of Krakow was decorated, reportedly at the insistence of the building’s landlord, a member of the Potocki family.

Krakow mood. The city was in a jubilant mood even before the Pope arrived. Mingling with the welcoming crowd that night on the blonie and along the motorcade route, the atmosphere was one of excited happiness, among old and young. Krakow is a university city, and the well-wishers out for this triumphal return emphatically included a high percentage of students and other youths, putting the lie to regime efforts to portray the Church as the province only of clergy and old people.

As a private party later that night, dozens of young people, students and the Polytechnic, were exuberant about the Pope’s presence in the city. Though excited and hopeful, they were also conscious of the state’s power and of political realities, and so skeptical about great or quick progress. Clearly, the Church and the person of Pope John Paul II engaged them emotionally and intellectually.

Because of Krakow’s relatively concentrated core area, and because of the Pope’s special ties to the city, the excited mood was sustained throughout the Pope’s stay. Each time he drove to the city’s outskirts to catch a helicopter or returned from an excursion to one of the surrounding sites, crowds in the tens of thousands materialized all along the motorcade route. There were also frequent spontaneous gatherings outside the papal residence, often late into the night, with happy singing, and, occasionally, banter between the Pontiff himself and the crowds.

Oswiecim-Brzezinka (Auschwitz-Birkenau). The huge throng of perhaps a million or more was calm and orderly, clearly conscious of the solemnity of the occasion. The Pope’s speech here was different in pace and tone from most of the others. He delivered, first of all, a deeply felt eulogy; every word seemed to be a benediction.

The Pontiff took a Lincolnesque approach in most of his speech, attempting to bind up the wounds of history. The importance of his tribute to the Jewish dead is clear in a country where charges of anti-Semitism continue to be raised and to be bitterly denounced by the regime.

John Paul II’s mention of the Russian dead and Russian suffering during the war was a startling addition, not contained in the prepared text. He seemed to be reminding his countrymen that the Russians, too, suffered greatly. Whether he was also suggesting that the Russians might have justification for wanting to secure their own borders against future aggression is uncertain.

The Pontiff also seem to be talking to the Russians, saying that he knew their history and that he is no fanatic anti-communist impossible to deal with. (In Nowy Targ, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Krol reportedly told a few journalists that the Pope prays every night for the conversion of Russia).

Another major theme was the need of man and of nations for freedom. He said that Auschwitz dramatized what can happen when human rights are subordinate to the demands of the state system. That reference drew applause, as did his assertion a little later that no nation should ever profit as another’s expense, “at the cost of enslavement of the other, as the cost of conquest, outrage, exploitation and death.” It seemed clear that the Pope’s audience perceived contemporary applicability in his words.

The Pope’s central theme was the victory of faith and hope over tyranny, inhumanity and war. His plea for peace, and his quotation from Paul VI (“No more war, war never again.”) obviously struck a responsive chord with the participants in this event, as it doubtless did also with the Polish authorities.

In several passages, John Paul II referred to the unifying potential of Christianity; it was a message he had had made explicit earlier in the week in Czestochowa, in a speech to Polish bishops called by many observers one of his most important of the visit. He said then that Christianity, with its spiritual and ethical values can serve as a unifying force for Europe, East and West. As if to underscore this theme, when the Brzezinka Mass was over, the Pope laid a wreath at the monument to the victims of fascism, pausing in front of the inscribed tablets in each of 19 languages. He then signed a memorial book, writing simply, in Polish, “John Paul II, Pope.”

Nowy Targ. Watching on closed circuit television in the Krakow press center, efforts by cameramen to conceal the dimensions and enthusiasm of the crowd looked pathetic. The warmth of the feeling between the mountain people and the Pontiff was obvious. He appeared on the verge of tears more than once as he spoke and while spectacular gifts were being offered to him (including a vow of abstinence by one group). When the service was over, his car crawled slowly towards his helicopter through a vast sea of mountaineers on three sides of him; the people kept only just far enough away to permit safe passage, as priests exhorted them to do. A mountain band played hauntingly beautiful tunes as the crowd sang along (“Mountain man aren’t you sorry to leave your fatherland, and the woods and the hills…Mountain man, come back to the hills….”). It was a surpassing personal triumph, tinged with sadness because John Paul II may never be able to return to this region he loves.

Papal Impact. During this visit the Pope came to embody Polish patriotism. He displayed commanding hold on the imagination and allegiance of nearly all Poles. Much of the attraction is now personal, attached to this particular figure. But his triumphal journal also confers overwhelming new prestige on the Church itself. He made it clear to one and all, in Poland and around the word, that it is the Church, not the party, which arouses the enthusiasm and commands the respect of the people. The conclusive demonstration of this fact alters the political equation between Church and state, though there remain too many unknowns to say what happens now.

(End 1979 report).

The rest is history.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Author Dick Virden retired from the senior Foreign Service in 2004. He was Information Officer/Press Attache in Warsaw in 1979 when John Paul II returned to Poland for the first time as Pope. He now lives in Plymouth, Minnesota.


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