As the College of Cardinals met in late August of that year to choose a new leader for the Catholic Church after the death of Pope Paul VI, they attempted to make the conservative choice by promoting Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy as Pope John Paul I. That selection continued a long line of Italian leaders of the Church. God would have other ideas, recalling Pope John Paul I home a mere 33 days into his papacy.
As the cardinals met again, for the second time in less than two months, they realized God meant for them to look in a new direction.
The Global Crisis
The cardinals alighted on Cardinal Wojtyla. A Pole, he became the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years. At the young age of 58, Karol Wojtyla was the man to lead the Catholic Church in the face of an uncertain world.
As Pope John Paul II ascended to the papal seat in October 1978, the political world looked bleak. Global communism continued to make headway. Communist regimes had recently cropped up in far-flung parts of the world, and the center in Moscow seemed as firm as ever. Communist governments within the Soviet sphere held a ruthless established dictatorship over lives of millions.
The other major political power in the world, the United States, seemed to be on the decline. The United States had spent the 1970s trying to recover from the long and drawn out defeat in Vietnam, which was immediately followed by the internal political upheaval of the Watergate scandal.
Hindsight points to the cracking foundation behind the façade of strength. The Soviet Union was weakening. The Soviet economy was struggling to keep up even with the slowing United States. But the façade could hold up for a while yet, and no one in the United States or global leadership of the free world had the wherewithal or moral standing to reveal the cracking foundation of global communism. With the relative weakness of Western leadership, Pope John Paul II would bridge that gap.
Born in Poland in 1920, Wojtyla came of age in the late 1930s just before Adolf Hitler rolled into Poland, setting off World War II. Karol Wojtyla prepared for the priesthood in a land under the rule of ruthless foreigners driven by the belief that they could remake the world in their own image through the force of the state. Eventually, the Nazis were pushed back, and Nazi Germany collapsed under the assault of the Allied powers, but Poland would not know freedom. The Communist Red Army of the Soviet Union soon established a new control in Poland, and the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe.
Wojtyla became a priest and moved up the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church in a godless state of Soviet communism. As a theologian he had demonstrated an interest in philosophical issues more than political, and the communists originally considered him harmless. But he understood the oppression of the communist world, and he knew good men must counter oppression if it is to fall. He recognized the real strength and weaknesses of the communist regime. It attempted to create a society in which everything revolved around the regime. The tyranny had no boundaries.
As a bishop and leader, Karol Wojtyla saw the Catholic Church as the ideal counterweight to the communist state, which tried to control the Church as well.
Bishop Wojtyla cultivated within his people the desire to win back society. The Catholic Church had a different set of ethical beliefs, based on the equality and dignity of each human being. Emphasizing these, the Church could create an alternative society to the atheist state. The strength of this alternative society would expose to the world the weakness of the brutal communist regime while following Christ’s command to care for one another.
Ascending to the papacy in 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla held to the same message. He believed that the communist global dictatorship in Moscow; Warsaw, Poland; or wherever did not need to be recognized as legitimate. He took his message to create a strong, passive resistance in Poland to the world.
Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II had the same strong message that flew directly in the face of the communist leaders — that is, the message of the dignity of all men, freedom of religion, and respect for human rights: “When Christ became Man, He established the high standing of the human being in creation. Every human being has a dignity — and by extension a right to freedom of conscience — that both Church and state are obliged to respect.”
With this consistent message, Pope John Paul could use the worldwide platform of the papacy to make the Catholic Church a player in the struggle for the hearts, minds and bodies of men everywhere, and he was the man for the message. His offer to mediate between Argentina and Chile in late 1978, which some credit with averting a war, showed he was ready to engage in global affairs, not just matters of religion.
The Polish Battleground
During the Cold War, Pope John Paul II retained his consistent and strong message, gaining acclaim and support. He irritated Soviets by denouncing them from a strong position of moral authority wherever he went. He traveled much, and even more after the attempted assassination on his life in 1981 by Mehmet Ali Acga.
As primarily a religious and not a political leader, Pope John Paul understood the limits of his mission.
He was a bearer of ideas and a leader of men, but more than anything he represented the hope of a people living in oppression. People who had lived so long under Communist rule could look to him for another and better way. He was the man of freedom behind the Iron Curtain, and even the vast machinery of the international Communist Party could not take away his pedestal.
He was not just another Italian pope who had no experience of daily communist oppression; he was one of the oppressed.
Pope John Paul II was a Polish national hero. Poland would become the first important battleground in the collapse of international communism and Soviet Union. His native land presented the foremost opportunity to address the powers of the Communist Party as the Catholic leader. The crowds that came to see Pope John Paul were resisters because Catholicism was a resistance to the atheism of the regime.
The Communist Party of Poland was not prepared for a Polish pope. During his visit to Poland in 1979 the Pope called for a united Europe of Christian and democratic nations. He and the Catholic leaders supported the Solidarity movement.
The Communist Party could only respond with even harsher measures, further exposing the degradation of the regime. With his consistent message awakening the hope of the people, Pope John Paul could inspire the people to bring down the communist regime.
The Soviet Union Falls
At the same time, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s strategy took its toll on the Soviet Union. The economic and military buildup by the United Sates in the 1980s could not be matched by the Soviet Union in light of growing internal dissension. The Pope and Reagan both saw Poland as key to unraveling the Soviet Union. Pope John Paul did not fully support military buildup, but he left those judgments to secular rulers. He knew his allies and trusted them despite his reservations.
The Pope and Polish bishops also continued to endorse Lech Walesa and Solidarity, eventually convincing the communist regime to negotiate. On his 1983 visit to Poland, the Pope demanded to see Walesa, who was under house arrest, and the regime could not refuse. Martial law was soon lifted. Solidarity, backed by the Church, continued to gain steam.
The downfall of Poland’s communist regime precipitated the collapse of global communism. Walesa later stated, “Nothing could have happened without the Church.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev saw the example of Poland and knew the same would happen to the Soviet regime in a heartbeat if liberalizing reforms were not initiated. In meeting with Gorbachev, Pope John Paul continued to push his message that liberalizing must go all the way. He pushed freedom of conscience and freedom of religion legislation for the Soviet Union, making such legislation a condition for his visit to Moscow.
Rather than succumb to Gorbachev’s piteous advances, the Pope stood firm on the need for better treatment for Catholics and the recognition of human rights and religious freedom.
Gorbachev rightly deserves his place as the key player in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Pope John Paul provided the first candle that became a flame. Gorbachev himself declared in an interview that Pope John Paul II had played “a major political role” in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
Pope John Paul played this role by recognizing the position of the pope as one of global leadership. He used the position to present a clear message against communist totalitarianism.
As former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney has pointed out, “The Church provided not just sanctuary from the morally bankrupt totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, but a flag under which the faithful could gather.”