WASHINGTON -- In spring 1997, when I had the privilege of being in a group of 60 visitors to briefly greet Pope John Paul II on the steps leading into St. Peter's, there was one thing above all else that I was driven to say to him.
& quot;Your Holiness," I said, "thank you for Solidarity!" Already sick and weak, he nevertheless slightly smiled and nodded. I felt strongly that he knew well what he had accomplished.
With his death Saturday at age 84 and his funeral looming this week, his accomplishments stand in so many areas -- mystical, spiritual, religious, political, intellectual, literary -- that it's easy to get lost in the rich forest of memories he left us. But perhaps because I covered Poland and communism during his influential years of the 1980s and '90s, I feel a personal need to focus today on that work.
His support of the Solidarity Free Trade Unions would seem to be, first and foremost, political. It was his trip to his native and beloved Poland in 1979, just a year after his investiture as pope, that set the country spiritually afire against the communists. For the first time, Poles said, they realized that it was the communists who were the dissidents in Poland, and not they.
Having fought the communists as a young priest and bishop, John Paul involved himself with Solidarity on every level, at the same time opening a dialogue with the communists -- spiritual power to secular power, historic cultural power against modern Marxist power.
In America in the '80s, he found a soul mate in President Ronald Reagan, who sent his top envoy, Gen. Dick Walters, to the Vatican many times to take intelligence on the communists to the pope. And in December 1980, the pope and his "legions," the Reagan White House, Solidarity and many other players, were able to stop a planned Soviet invasion of Poland. They had to work persistently to keep the situation calm so the Soviets would not invade and, at the same time, move Polish society forward enough to avoid civil unrest.
Another American who was repeatedly sent to meet with the pontiff was the respected American Gen. Edward Rowny. "He was very much interested in what Ronald Reagan was up to," Gen. Rowny reminisced with me this week. "The pope's staff was very standoffish and hostile to Reagan -- they felt he was taking too many risks with the Soviet Union -- but the pope was not that way at all."
In Russia in the mid-1980s, the pope also made a friend of the progressive Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who would tell the Italian newspaper La Stampa in 1992: "All that has happened in Eastern Europe over these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope."
And Lech Walesa, the still-ebullient leader of Solidarity, told a small group of us journalists when we were in Warsaw just a year ago: "The Soviet Union was a massive machine, and it ground on, and on, and on. Then suddenly, there was one little cog in the machine that was going the other way and the machine couldn't work anymore. That was Solidarity." And that cog was fashioned by Pope John Paul II.
The pope's intentions for spiritual revival were also profoundly cultural. In his later years in the papacy, he would astound the world by visiting synagogues, mosques and Protestant churches and apologizing to the world for the church's and Christianity's wrongs (the persecution of Jews and Protestants, the Holocaust, the Inquisition). This was part of his "purification of memory."
Behind all of these acts lay his deep desire for the unity of the Christian churches, in particular the "reciprocal reconciliation" of the Western and the Eastern Christian churches, which broke in the 11th century.
The pope's closest friend and spiritual interpreter, the erudite philosopher Professor Rocco Buttiglione, told me when I visited the Vatican in recent years that the pope believed that the Poles and the Russians were "not two peoples but two ideas thrown into the sea of the Slavic people. The Poles represented freedom; the Russians, slavery."
On the other hand, the professor said, of the two great traditions within Russian Orthodoxy, one centered about St. Cyril, who believed in "inner freedom and the conciliatory kingship of the Christian who speaks truth to power & quot;; the second school, which believed in "compliance with state power and order guaranteed through the state," was the one that fed into communism in modern times.
Rigid and hostile
In the '60s, progressive priests believed that reconciliation with the Russian Church would come inevitably and soon -- but it never did. The pope was never even invited to Russia to meet the Orthodox patriarch, and Russian Orthodoxy has remained more self-isolated, rigid and hostile toward outside faiths than ever.
But in the end, Pope John Paul II was at least doubly blessed: Few across the centuries are given the opportunity both to make today's history and to correct yesterday's; no popes before him were willing to face the Protestant Enlightenment with his openness. And just after his death, it was announced, surprisingly, that a high-level Russian Orthodox delegation would attend the pope's funeral.
I think John Paul will be most remembered for the biblical injunctions that he spoke as his first words to the crowd outside St. Peter's in 1978, when he was named the first Polish pope and Solidarity lay just over the horizon. He repeated the words that most informed his life three times, this time for the world: "Be not afraid, be not afraid, be not afraid."
Universal Press Syndicate