Documentary sheds new light on Pope John Paul II

The long and dramatic pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II — which spanned from 1978 to 2005 — was dotted with historic and consequential moments. But few among them shine as brightly as his June 1979 visit to his homeland. That visit, it is often said, lit the fuse that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and its Communist empire in Eastern Europe in the late 20th century.

This story has been told, sometimes carefully and sometimes controversially, in books such as George Weigel’s “Witness to Hope” (HarperCollins, $24.99) and Jonathan Kwitny’s “Man of the Century” and films like Newt and Callista Gingrich’s “Nine Days that Changed the World” and the CBS mini-series, “Pope John Paul II.” Now, television audiences have a chance to explore it again with “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.” The 90-minute documentary will be broadcast on PBS stations throughout the month of June.

It’s certainly a story worth telling, and “Liberating a Continent” tells it well. It ought to, with movie star James Caviezel as narrator, other Hollywood names behind the scenes and the clout of the Knights of Columbus providing support. With the hindsight of history, one can only watch in awe the footage of the pope praying in Warsaw’s Victory Square on June 2, 1979: “I cry from all the depths of this millennium: Let your Spirit descend! Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”

Image courtesy of "Liberating a Continent'

But given all of the books and films mentioned above, and several more besides, why take another swing at the story? Some important elements allow “Liberating a Continent” to stand out.

More than other resources, this film considers John Paul II’s impact on resistance movements that emerged beyond Poland, in other nations condemned to existence behind the Iron Curtain, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia. It also carries its narrative much farther ahead, suggesting in some detail that even the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine owes a debt to John Paul II’s spirit of resistance and his insistence on “the spiritual unity of Christian Europe.”

“Liberating a Continent” provides some interesting details that may be new even to John Paul II devotees. The statement by Cardinal Stanislaw Dzwisz, the pope’s closest aide for decades, that John Paul had a “conviction” that the order for his 1981 assassination attempt “came from Moscow” is revealing. And former National Security Advisor Richard Allen’s account of Ronald Reagan’s tears while watching television coverage of the Pope’s 1979 Poland trip is probably new.

This new documentary considers the pope’s relationship with Reagan and acknowledges the fact that they both envisioned a world without Soviet communism. But to its credit, it mostly avoids exaggerated claims, made by others, of a sort of “holy alliance” between the two, an elaborate and coordinated strategy to eradicate communism. Indeed, Allen puts their relationship and the pope’s historical role in a more modest light when he says in the film, “It was Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Cole, Reagan, fearless leaders. And of course with a Polish pope, it made a bit of a difference.”

And unlike many prominent tellings of this story, “Liberating a Continent” at least manages to hint at the crucial ways that Reagan’s vision and John Paul’s were not alike but were in fact at odds. Narrator Caviezel notes that the pope was gravely concerned about new threats to human dignity introduced into Poland by the arrival of Western culture and capitalism, including consumerism and, as one historian of Solidarity interviewed in the film puts it, “separating morality from the economy.” A former prime minister of Poland cites the pope’s warning that “once we discovered freedom, we could get completely lost in that freedom.”

Left mostly unsaid is that these latter threats did indeed materialize powerfully along with the Western-style capitalism Reagan was so intent on bringing to Eastern Europe. (Some would argue they are inseparable from it.) Unfortunately, vast numbers of the Catholic faithful who had chanted “We want God” in Victory Square in 1979 were also quick to welcome the consumerism and exaggerated notions of economic freedom that Reagan championed but that John Paul II warned sternly against. More explicit acknowledgement of this aspect of the story would have rendered this film more honest and more interesting and set it apart still further from similar efforts.

“Liberating a Continent” is an inspiring witness to a courageous and holy pope, and to the relevance of faith and moral convictions to political and social questions. For discerning viewers, it will also serve as a reminder of what Pope St. John Paul II knew: that not every freedom is liberating. It is a lesson that many, both in Eastern Europe and the United States, have yet to learn.

Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.

A version of this story appears in the June 26, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on Page 7.