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Forty years after Pope John Paul II bent the course of the 20th century in a more humane direction during his first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in June 1979, new information continues to emerge about what happened behind the scenes, shedding further light on those epic events. The latest surprise involves a hitherto unremarked (and evidently impromptu) meeting of the Polish episcopate with the Polish pope in the middle of what’s become known as the “Nine Days.” Polish scholars recently discovered and published a transcript of that encounter, and kindly shared a translation with me while I was teaching in Cracow last month.

A bit of background helps set the scene for a powerful reminder that what may seem mere coincidence or randomness can, in fact, be providential—and instructive for the present.

Warsaw, Poland’s political capital from 1596 until the Third Polish Partition in 1795 erased “Poland” from the map of Europe, was absorbed into the Russian Empire after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Russian authorities immediately began an intense and often brutal program of Russification, which included banning the use of the Polish language in public administration and the courts. One physical expression of this determination to eradicate Polishness in Warsaw was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the city center on Saxon Square between 1894 and 1912.

Speaking at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the Russian czar had told Poles to abandon all hope of recovering their independence, and the new Russian Orthodox megachurch—with a bell tower designed to be the highest point in the city—was meant to underscore this brutal diktat. At the cathedral’s dedication in 1912, the local Russian Orthodox archbishop said that “The creators of this cathedral had nothing hostile in their thoughts towards the unorthodoxy that surrounds us: coercion is not in the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Church.” This was, of course, poppycock. The Nevsky Cathedral was nothing but a hostile politico-nationalistic act; the Russian Orthodox Church had long been an instrument of Russian state power; and, as Archbishop Nicholas himself admitted (however clumsily), the cathedral was intended to juxtapose Russian Orthodoxy to the “unorthodoxy” of recalcitrant Poles who clung to their heretical Catholicism.

Read more at First Things 

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