By JOHN J. METZLER
John Paul II, the Pope from Poland, has been declared a saint. According to canon law, the Pope performed the requisite miracles and was thus then canonized by the Vatican. Yet, one unspoken miracle of John Paul was playing a pivotal role in the ending of the Cold War.
The 27-year pontificate of John Paul II was marked by a whirlwind of pastoral visits, pilgrimages, and meetings with both the faithful and world leaders, more than any of his Predecessors. JPII, as he became known, became a religious “rock star” in a profoundly secular world; a man whose humble spirituality, but yet extraordinary political sense, and tireless moves toward global religious reconciliation, earned him esteem in scores of countries and on all continents.
This archbishop of Krakow, Poland, became an unexpected, if near improbable, choice in a Vatican where the papacy had been an Italian institution for over 400 years. Yet John Paul’s selection as Pontiff in October 1978 came at a time when Europe stood on the cusp of profound political change.
To be sure, the selection of a Polish Pope was as unexpected as it was unique; Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was respected and admired for firmly standing up to his country’s Communist government. And though the Polish Communists and their Soviet patrons had no inkling of the enduring power of the long-suppressed Catholic faith, they would soon find out. The new Pope became both the favored son and a symbol not only of the faith, but of a smoldering Polish nationalism which would soon ignite.
One must view John Paul II’s tenure in the context of the times. The Cold War remained frozen, rumblings of dissent in the Soviet East Bloc were rare, and the Carter administration in the USA, to put it diplomatically, was viewed as dithering, weak, and unreliable by many of America’s allies. Conversely, the Soviets were near the high point of their power geopolitically. America remained in a profound and depressed “funk” in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle and ensuing political jolts in places like Nicaragua.
But even miracles don’t happen overnight. While John Paul II promoted a spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church, the immediate effects appeared in his native Poland where the Church, long an unofficial opposition to the Communist rulers, took on a pro-active role as a nationalistic beacon. The Polish Communist regime was nervous, but the Soviets still could not fathom either the depth of faith or the proud nationalism. Such “bourgeois values” were not part of the scientifically atheist socialist states.
Other events followed in quick order. A free trade union, Solidarity, was founded by Polish shipyard workers. In August 1980, Lech Walesa would lead a movement, which, while brutally suppressed by the so-called people’s republic, soon became the secular vessel for Polish nationalism.
Later in the year, in America’s presidential elections in November, Ronald Reagan won by a landslide, still one of the largest in U.S. history.
Historically speaking, we experienced an amazing constellation of forces: the Pope (spiritual), Solidarity, (trade union/temporal), and the President (political), promoting a freedom agenda for a region frozen in time since 1945.
The extraordinary events that unfolded over the next decade led to the penultimate year 1989, which witnessed the waves of freedom for the East Bloc: Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia! Who could have imagined this, even in a dream?
During the Polish Pontiff’s landmark visit to the USA in October 1979, I first saw him at the United Nations. John Paul II’s address to the General Assembly — as well as a special speech to the media — was spiritual, but a profoundly electric political experience as well.
Showing an almost youthful vibrancy, the new Pontiff called on journalists to “serve as messengers of the truth.” One could hope.
Again recalling the timeline, all this was a full decade before the tsunami of freedom would sweep throughout Eastern Europe, which eventually tumbled the Berlin Wall. It was 11 years, just short of a day, when the world would see Germany’s peaceful reunification. The Soviet imperium was broken.
Two Popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, two men of profound global influence, have become saints. They made history too!
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(John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China [University Press: 2014].)