INDEPTH: POPE JOHN PAUL II
Pope stared down Communism in homeland - and won
CBC News Online | April 2005
Despite having no armies under his command and no weapons to
deploy, Pope John Paul II played a pivotal role in one of the
20th century's greatest geopolitical dramas - the struggle against
the Soviet Union's forceful dominance in Asia and Eastern Europe.
Through public statements, private negotiations and repeated
trips to his native Poland, John Paul helped undermine communist
rule in his home country in 1989. That event reverberated
throughout other Soviet bloc countries such as Hungary, East
Germany and Romania, sparking a chain reaction of revolutions
and coups, most of them nonviolent. Today, that region is
largely free and democratic.
Years later, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reflected
on the changes that occurred behind the Iron Curtain. "It
would have been impossible without the pope," he said.
But the pope was not the only force at work in those countries.
John Paul's religious pronouncements complemented the steely
will of England's Margaret Thatcher and America's Ronald Reagan,
combined with years of economic stagnation that made the populations
of the Soviet bloc countries eager for change.
|Among the achievements of the papacy of John Paul II:
- Number of overseas trips: 104
- Number of trips inside Italy: 146
- Number of cities visited: 876
- Number of foreign countries visited: 129
- Number of speeches given on the road: 3,288
- Time on the road: 822 days
- Percentage of the papacy spent traveling: 18.65 percent
- Miles traveled: 773,520
- Miles traveled expressed in number of times around the world: 31.19
- Number of people beatified: 1,345
- Number of saints made: 483
- Number of heads of state and prime ministers met in audiences: 803
- Number of general audiences: 1,160
- Number of pilgrims met in audiences: 17,642,800
- Number of cardinals named: 232
- Number of encyclicals: 14
Holy See, Religion News Service, National Catholic Reporter.
The pope's fierce opposition to communism stemmed from his
belief that an individual's chief allegiance should be to
God and one's own conscience, not the state. The pope thought
communism, which suppressed religious, economic and political
freedoms, set itself up as a kind of alternative god.
"In our times evil has developed outside all limits,"
John Paul wrote in Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections,
published in February 2005. "The evil of the 20th century
was of gigantic proportions, an evil that used state structures
to carry out its dirty work; it was evil transformed into
Some chroniclers of this historical period portray John Paul
as one part James Bond and two parts John the Baptist.
While most historians dispute this characterization, few
doubt the significance of his contribution to the spread of
Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian, put it
this way: "Without the pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity,
no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of communism."
The seeds of this passion play were sown Oct. 16, 1978. On
that day, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, a relatively unknown 58-year-old
prelate from Krakow, was elected pope. Poles poured into the
streets in celebration - crying, drinking, and kissing one
Seven months later, in June of 1979, the pope returned to
Poland for a nine-day pilgrimage. During the trip, roughly
a quarter of the nation's population heard him speak in giant
open-air meetings. Millions more in Poland and throughout
the world witnessed these events on television.
The pope spoke of Poland's Christian roots and the transience
of the communist regime. His words were a direct challenge
to the communist leaders that ruled Poland and surrounding
countries with an iron fist that suppressed religion and freedom
"He gave enormous moral and public support to the opposition
and the common man and woman in the street. He morally discredited
the regime," said Anthony Judt, a historian at New York
University. "It was a matter of great significance to
Poles that there was a Polish pope and that he was young and
vigorous. It created a sense of alternative possibilities."
The pope's tour galvanized the opposition in Poland, resulting
in the formation of a giant labour union called Solidarity.
Led by Lech Walesa, an eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner and
Polish president, members of Solidarity struggled against
Poland's communist leaders throughout the 1980s. They assumed
power in 1989 after running in the Soviet bloc's first free
Like the first in a row of dominos, Poland's relatively peaceful
transition to democracy led to wholesale change throughout
the region over the next year. Soon, the Soviet Union would
be no more.
In Memory and Identity, the pope claimed little
credit for the Soviet Union's collapse. Instead, he said internal
economic rot was largely responsible, even as he pointed beyond
economics to spiritual and moral factors.
"It would be rather ingenuous to attribute it only to
economic factors," the pope wrote. "I also know
that it would be equally ridiculous to believe that it was
the pope who brought down communism with his own hands."
Copright 2005 Religion News Service