KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WARSAW, Poland -- Poland in the late 1970s was a grim and isolated place. The economy was a shambles. The shelves of shops were empty, and consumers waited in long lines. The communist regime went almost unchallenged.
But spirits rose in October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope. Poles suddenly had a link to the outside world -- Wojtyla would be their voice. And Wojtyla was determined to help his homeland.
When the Vatican proposed a visit in early 1979, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, recommended that the pope's trip should be postponed "due to illness." A homecoming for a Polish pope would only bring trouble, he warned.
The Polish government believed it could stage-manage a harmless religious event. But the communists had little inkling of the power wielded by Pope John Paul II.
Some 300,000 Poles filled Warsaw's vast Victory Square for the first papal Mass on June 2, 1979. Nearly a million more jammed the surrounding streets.
"There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map," the pope told them.
The response swelled like a vast tidal wave: "We want God, we want God."
Over the course of the nine-day pilgrimage, the pope altered the psychological landscape of his homeland, instilling a sense of dignity and courage. His theme, repeated over and over at every stop, was solidarnosz -- the solidarity of the Polish people.
Effect of visit
Fourteen months after the papal visit, those ideas bore fruit.
Government-imposed price increases triggered a wave of strikes culminating in the takeover of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk by 17,000 workers. They were led by a feisty electrician with a drooping mustache, Lech Walesa, who knelt at the barricades armed only with images of the Black Madonna, Poland's most cherished religious symbol.
Timid church leaders in Poland were slow to grasp the meaning of what was taking place and urged the strikers to show restraint. But in Rome, Pope John Paul II understood immediately the importance of the strikers' demands and sent a message of support.
The strikers refused to buckle, and in August 1980 a revolution was born. It called itself Solidarity.
Within three weeks of its founding, more than 3 million workers from 3,500 factories had declared their allegiance to Solidarity. Within months the number would balloon to 10 million -- more than one-quarter of the population.
In 1981, under mounting pressure from Moscow, Poland's leaders imposed martial law. A few minutes before midnight on Dec. 12, telephones across Poland went dead, and tanks rumbled through the capital. Four thousand Solidarity leaders, including Walesa, were rounded up and arrested.
The pope, still recovering from the gunshot wound inflicted by a would-be assassin seven months earlier, prayed for his compatriots. That Christmas Eve he lit a single candle in the window of his Vatican apartment -- a symbol of "solidarity with suffering nations."
But he was determined to do more than that. In 1983, after months of negotiations with the communist leaders of Poland, the pope returned. That second pilgrimage would turn out to be one of the crowning achievements of his papacy and an unmitigated disaster for the regime.
Despite warnings from the government to stay home, 3 million people turned out for three open-air Masses in Czestochowa. They heard the pope preach a gospel of dignity, human rights and solidarity.
Despite tanks in the streets and the menacing presence of security police everywhere, 300,000 gathered for a Mass at a Warsaw stadium meant to hold 100,000.
Bronislaw Geremek, a professor of medieval history and key adviser to Walesa, would later serve as democratic Poland's foreign minister. But on June 17, the day of the pope's open air Mass at the football stadium, Geremek was in Warsaw's Rakowiecka Prison. He recalls the extraordinary silence that descended upon the city as the pope began to speak.
By the time the pope left Poland, the regime was more afraid of its own people and the Polish pope than it was of Moscow's hollow threats of invasion. A month after the papal visit, martial law was lifted.
The road to freedom and democracy would not be easy for the Poles. As their economy continued its slow-motion free-fall, the country's rulers stubbornly clung to power, harassed Solidarity activists and curtailed human rights.
But the Solidarity movement--officially non-existent--had regained the initiative, and, with constant reinforcement from the Vatican, it would hold fast until the regime finally gave way.
At the beginning of 1987, a full two years before the beginning of the talks that would mark the formal dismantling of communism in Poland, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski traveled to Rome for a meeting with the pope.
At this point, writes papal historian George Weigel, "Both men knew who had won."
And with the ascent to Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, who signaled that he would not continue to use military might to suppress Eastern Europe, the only real issue was to secure a peaceful transition.
In January 1989, Jaruzelski announced he would recognize Solidarity and meet with Walesa for a series of talks on the future of Poland. The talks began in February. Two months later the regime agreed to semifree elections: Jaruzelski would remain as president and the Communist Party would be guaranteed 65 percent of the seats in parliament. The remaining 35 percent could be contested.
The election was held June 4, and Solidarity won all of the 192 contested seats. There also was an election for the newly created Polish Senate. Solidarity swept 99 of 100 seats. Historians estimated that 80 percent of the Communist Party's membership must have voted for Solidarity.
A humiliated Jaruzelski took office as president, but he bowed to the inevitable by naming Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a leading Catholic intellectual with close ties to the pope, as prime minister. Mazowiecki was the first non-communist to head a government in Eastern Europe since World War II.
In short order the communist regimes of neighboring countries began to crumble. Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia saw peaceful revolutions. Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Albania followed, though not always gently.
Fall of communism
Although the CIA and the rest of Washington failed to see it coming, the collapse of the Soviet Union was only a matter time.
Gorbachev's perestroika reforms were too little, too late. The Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- had been agitating for greater freedoms since 1987. With the dramatic collapse of communism in the Soviet satellite states, the Baltic peoples stepped up their demands. Nationalist movements were on the rise in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia as well.
From his earliest days in power, Gorbachev was deeply curious about the Slavic pope.
A decade later, Gorbachev would write, "Everything that has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would have been impossible without the pope's efforts and the enormous role, including the political role, he has played in the world arena."
The pontiff took a more modest view of his role.
"I didn't cause this to happen," he told an interviewer. "The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake, and the rotten apples fell."
For a thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has been the guardian and repository of the Polish national identity. Nowhere in Europe is a nation so closely tied to its faith.
The Polish pope also saw his homeland as a living bridge between the two Europes, East and West. And it was his hope -- his expectation -- that Poland would not only regain its freedom, but also would lead the rest of Europe back to Christianity.
In the immediate aftermath of the regime's collapse, the Polish church claimed victory for itself and demanded its say in the new nation. Poland's liberal abortion laws were abolished, and the Catholic catechism was taught in state schools.
Many cities and towns renamed streets in honor of Pope John Paul II. From the pulpit, bishops instructed the faithful for whom they should vote.
Most Poles saw things differently. The church, of course, had aided the people, but that did not mean the church owned the victory. The last thing Poles wanted was to replace the "red" tyranny of communism with the "black" tyranny of clerical rule.
Instead, Poles embraced Western-style capitalism and consumerism with astonishing speed. Almost overnight, it seemed, the drab gray of Warsaw was transformed by colorful billboards of Western businesses advertising their wares.
Poles also began to adopt the social norms of Western Europe. Ignoring the church's teaching on birth control, they had fewer babies. While tough anti-abortion laws remain on the books, an illegal abortion underground advertises openly in newspapers. In recent years, the divorce rate has soared; church attendance has declined.
On the occasion of Pope John Paul II's first visit to his homeland after the fall of communism, Poles were expecting a celebration. Instead, they got a scolding.
The pope took in the all the changes, and, like an angry Moses, he lashed out at the "whole civilization of desire and pleasure which is now lording it over us, profiting from various means of seduction. Is this civilization or is it anti-civilization?
"And what should be the criteria for Europeanism? Freedom? What kind of freedom? The freedom to take the life of an unborn child?" he asked.
The visit stunned Poles and left the pope feeling betrayed by his compatriots. For the first time, the international media began to paint a picture of the pope as an angry old man, out of touch with the times.
The years took their toll on the pontiff, but he hadn't changed his message. He never softened the tone.
His most recent visits to Poland have been occasions for great outpourings of national pride. In 2002, an estimated 2.5 million turned out for an open-air Mass in Krakow.
Among them was 46-year-old steelworker Henryk Otlinger. With tears streaming down his face, he hoisted his 10-year-old daughter, Natalia, onto his shoulders so that she might catch a glimpse of the man her father called "the most important person in the world, in the country and privately for us, in our family."
In Krakow that day, there was little evidence of the "new evangelization" the pope had yearned for. But the Poles came -- young and old -- to honor the man that many of them consider to be the greatest Pole who ever lived, a man of awesome spiritual power who gave his nation the strength to liberate itself.