The Michigan Catholic
October 30, 2014
On October 22 I celebrated St. John Paul II’s feast day with my radio listeners. The liberation of Eastern Europe came up and I was back in 1989-91. I hadn’t thought I would outlive communism and the Cold War. To friends I’d joke that Sally and I named our first two children Alexis (1981) and Nicholas (1984) just in case the Russians took over. “See, comrades, both our first-borns have Russian names.” It always got just a few laughs. But, lo and behold — ding, dong, Soviet style communism was dead just like the wicked old witch.
Back in 1989, however, my listeners were ho-hum about the faith bubbling beneath these geo-political earthquakes. Many, including Yale’s Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis, and former Carter National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recognized the liberation of Eastern Europe as one of the Church’s greatest moments. But the media neglected how faith sustained the people, challenged the false ideologies, and led to a bloodless revolution. Were we missing the Greatest Story Never Told?
Yes. I hoisted my papal flag and prepared a talk, The World’s Debt to the Catholic Church sketching Catholicism’s abundant contributions to human culture from the fall of Rome to the fall of communism. Fearful of being accused of triumphalism, post-conciliar American Catholics unwittingly hid the Church’s cultural light under a bushel. Consequently, many consume only a diet of Catholic misdeeds from a press that believes bad news always displaces good.
Communism’s death throes begin with John Paul II’s nine-day return to Poland in June 1979. The largest crowds in Polish history scared authorities when their Pope prayed: “Let your Holy Spirit descend, Let your Holy Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth and this land. Amen.”
In that thunderbolt, many Poles glimpsed a new world. Polish historian, Jan Zaryn observed, “When the Pope came in June 1979, we found again we were Poles and that made the Communist authorities disappear, if only for a week. It was the first week without Communists since 1945.”
In those massive crowds was a 33- year-old priest, Jerzy Popieulszko, and a Polish electrician, Lech Walesa, 38.
In August, 1980 Walesa was standing outside the locked gate of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. He wanted his job back. Pictures of John Paul II dotted the gates nearby. Those locked gates of communistic hell would not prevail against the truth and freedom Peter’s successor had been preaching. Walesa formed Solidarity, the only independent trade union in a Marxist Leninist country. Signing the union charter, his pen bore the image of John Paul II. “Without the Pope we wouldn’t [have been] able to organize ourselves…to fight communism,” he said.
The Communist authorities arrested Walesa. He announced with almost supernatural boldness: “This is the moment of your defeat. These are the last nails in the coffin of communism.” He was heeding John Paul II’s best known bit of advice: “Don’t be afraid.”
Since Communists knew what was best for the worker, shipyards and steel plants prohibited religious activities. But when striking steelworkers in Warsaw locked themselves in their plant, they rushed an envoy to Poland’s Primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński. Give us Mass and confessions. To penetrate that communist stronghold, the Cardinal deputized Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko. For three years, his stature and spiritual leadership grew as the trade unionists received him like an angelic chaplain. Under martial law and with the Solidarity leadership jailed, only the Catholic Church provided space and a voice for the Polish people.
Fr. Jerzy’s parish provided supplies and medical support. His Masses for the Fatherland drew tens of thousands. His simple sermons posed a choice: freedom or bondage, forgiveness or revenge. When Radio Free Europe broadcast these sermons throughout Poland the Communist government conspired to kill a priest.
On October 19, 1984, three secret service thugs kidnapped Fr. Jerzy, pummeled, bound, gagged and, eventually tossed his corpse into the Vistula River. According to a perpetrator, the brutality of the beating drew to mind the scourging of Christ.
His corpse, recognizable only by a birthmark, was discovered October 30. Awaiting news, 38 million Poles had united for ten days in a concert of prayer. Formed by this prayer and Fr. Jerzy’s words on forgiveness a 100,000 strong funeral procession would march in silent lament and steely resolve. His blood would not be the excuse to shed another’s. Cancerous forces of evil, he taught, turn in on and consume themselves. If this Catholic people would persist in the fruitful power of love learned from a priest, the age of the crucified Jesus, then Poland’s suffering would be the threshold to her resurrection.
Fr. Jerzy’s death falls between the two seismic events that bounded communism’s collapse: John Paul II’s 1979 visit and the 1989 free elections. With the election, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that it was all over and would have been impossible without John Paul II. The Berlin Wall fell five months later.
On October 22, we celebrated a holiness that loves, rather than escapes, the world. He taught Bl. Fr. Jerzy and Lech Walesa how to be in the world but not of it. The Marxist revolutionary promised the world salvation through the shedding of blood in class warfare. The saint offers his own blood and 38 million people are liberated in a bloodless revolution. The world owes a debt to the Catholic Church.
Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.