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The Political Pope

Pope John Paul ll’s greatest legacy may be his political impact on the world, most specifically on his native Poland and the fall of the Soviet Union. His famous Mass on the Warsaw square in 1979, and his nine-day tour of the nation preaching “never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged” to the millions of Poles who witnessed his 32 sermons, and gave courage to the anti-communist opposition, which yielded the peaceful end of communism ten years later.

Shortly after Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in October of 1978, Yuri Andropov, the head of Soviet intelligence, called the K.G.B.’s station chief in Warsaw and asked, “How could you have allowed a citizen of a Socialist country to be elected Pope?” The new Pope’s “pilgrimage” to Poland in ’79 caused the Communist Party in Warsaw to send out this directive to the nation’s schoolteachers, as quoted by David Remnick in the New Yorker:

“The Pope is our enemy. . . . Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, [he] puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children, etc. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns. . . . Because of the activities of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop. . . . In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford sentiments.”

Frontline’s John Paul ll biography site has this revealing story about the politicization of the future pope:

    Nowa Huta was a brand new town built by the Communists in the early 50’s outside of Krakow. The town was in Wojtyla’s jurisdiction. It was meant to be a workers’ paradise, built on Communist principles, a visible rebuke to the “decadent,” spiritually besotted Krakow. The regime assumed that the workers, of course, would be atheists, so the town would be built without a church. But the people soon made it clear they did want one. Wojtyla communicated their desire, and the regime opposed it.

    The conflict became an intense symbol of the opposition between the Catholic Church and the Communist state. It was a conflict between the workers’ world that was supposed to be beyond religion–and the actual workers singing old Polish hymns that started with the words, “We want God.” The Communist Party reluctantly issued a permit in 1958 and then withdrew it in 1962.

    Years went by as Karol Wojtyla joined other priests–especially, Father Gorlaney–met with authorities,and patiently filed and refiled for building permits. Crosses were put in the designated area and then pulled down at night only to mysteriously reappear weeks later. Meanwhile, Bishop Wojtyla and other priests gave sermons in the open field, winter and summer, under a burning sun, in freezing rain and snow. Year after year, Bishop Wojtyla celebrated Christmas Mass at the site where the church was supposed to be built. Thousands peacefully lined up for communion, but tension was building. Violence did actually erupt when the Communist authorities sent a bulldozer to tear down the cross. Lucjan Motyka was roused out of his hospital bed to be jeered at by the demonstrators. As he reminisced with us one morning about this humiliating moment, Motyka clearly believed that it was Wojtyla’s calming words that helped to avert an ugly and potentially dangerous confrontation.

    By this time, the Communists, local leaders, residents and Catholic Church had dug in, their positions seemingly intractable. The Communists’ compromise to allow a church to be built outside of the town was rejected–until Karol Wojtyla, the realist, the negotiator, broke the stalemate, persuading everyone that the existence of the church transcended all other considerations. The time to bend was now. In May 1977, a year before he became Pope, almost twenty years after the first request for a permit, Karol Wojtyla consecrated the church at Nowa Huta. What the worshippers were most proud of–and it was a symbol Karol Wojtyla helped to make into a reality–is the gigantic crucifix that hangs over the new altar. It was made out of shrapnel that had been taken from the wounds of Polish soldiers, collected and sent from all over the country to make the sculpture in the new church.

Just over a year later he was Pope and two years later would return to Poland to energize a peaceful revolution.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America’s Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America’s Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.

Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America’s Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America’s Most Haunted.

Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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