Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, has been gone for almost 17 years – but his shrewd wisdom and memories of steadfast resolve against the evils of communism can still provide us with insight regarding the current war in Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB when the newly elected pontiff made his celebrated return to his home country of Poland in June of 1979. The second-most populated of the Eastern Bloc countries controlled by the Soviet Union, the pope’s trip posed a difficult and high stakes dilemma for the communists.
If the Soviet Union prohibited John Paul II from visiting the country, they ran the very real risk of looking defensive and mean-spirited. But they also knew allowing him to make his pilgrimage would threaten their ironclad atheistic grip on the Polish people.
They were right on both accounts.
Historians credit Pope John Paul II’s ten-day trip to Poland with being the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
When nearly three million Poles showed up for the pope’s final appearance in an open field in his hometown city of Krakow and began chanting, “We want God!” – and then went home and saw state media almost completely ignoring the events on television – the Polish people realized they had been lied to.
But it was more than just media bias and fake news that helped turn the tide of the dangerous and deadly ideology – it was John Paul II’s willingness to boldly and courageously speak God’s truth.
Arriving in Warsaw on June 3rd, the pope declared in his first homily:
“Man cannot be fully understood without Christ. Or rather, man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ.”
“Therefore, Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. 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, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In Him it becomes the history of Salvation.”
Pope John Paul II wasn’t just decrying the evils of Vladimir Putin’s government but also reminding its people that God – not man – sits at the center of all things. Putin and his cronies may try and wear and peddle a veneer of the Christian faith, but make no mistake: communism, fascism and despotism are wholly incompatible with the freedoms found in Jesus Christ.
At the time, it was reported that a middle-aged doorman, who attended the event, said of his fellow Pole’s rise from priest to pope, “He left here with a bag, a toothbrush and a couple of rolls to eat. Look at the way he came back.”
During the pope’s final appearance before the millions assembled in Krakow, John Paul II provided them with a charge and blueprint for surviving and thriving then – and now:
“You must be strong, dear brothers and sisters,” he said. “You must be strong with the strength that comes from faith. You must be strong with the strength of faith. You must be faithful. Today more than in any other age you need this strength. You must be strong with the strength of hope, hope that brings the perfect joy of life and does not allow us to grieve the Holy Spirit.”
John Paul II’s brave rhetoric would be backed up by his bold actions – and courageous reactions. When he survived an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, he forgave and went to meet with the assassin himself. Back in 2006, an Italian investigation concluded that Mehmet Ali Agca had been hired by the Soviet Union:
“This commission believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul,” the report said.
Maybe that’s why throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II would repeatedly proclaim to all with ears to hear, “Be not afraid! Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!”
John Paul II’s declaration remains a clarion call to Vladimir Putin’s latest play and ploy to try and reassemble a failed empire. And the late pontiff’s prayer in Poland is worth repeating 43 years later:
“Let the Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth.”