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St. John Paul II: A Holy Life in 4 Acts

When Karol Wojtyła was born on May 18, 1920, the 1,000-year-old Polish nation had not even celebrated the second birthday of a new Polish state.

He would grow up to live the most distinctive 20th-century life. To all the solemn commemorative dates in Polish history, he added another: June 2, 1979, the date of his triumphant return to Warsaw for his first Polish pilgrimage. That date marked the beginning of the end of the “short” 20th century.

Centuries, as historical periods, are not exactly 100 years long. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the “short twentieth century,” from the Great War to 1991, a period dominated by the rise of totalitarian communism and its total defeat. One might mark it 1917-1991, beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

This short 20th century followed the “long 19th,” from the French Revolution in 1789 to the end of World War I. The French overthrew their monarchy in the revolution, and the Great War brought an end to the royal houses of Russia, Germany and Austria, and dissolved both the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The age of absolute monarchy was over.

Karol Wojtyła’s 85 years took up the alternatives to the monarchial age, fought against totalitarianism and offered a vision for liberal democracy rooted in the truth about the human person. It was a life that was lived in four successive acts.

The first act was the end of the imperial and monarchial age and what would follow it. That was the world into which Karol Wojtyła was born. In 1918, the state of Poland returned to the map of Europe after more than a century of absence; it had been suppressed and divided up in 1795 by the surrounding empires, Prussia (Germany), Russia and Austria-Hungary.

Kraków belonged to the Austrian crown, and Karol Wojtyła’s father was a soldier in the Habsburg armed forces before 1918. Indeed, in 2004, when St. John Paul II beatified the last Habsburg emperor, Karl (who died in 1922), he remarked that Karl was “my father’s sovereign.”

What would follow the fall of the kings and emperors?

Poland was on the front lines of that question. In 1919-1920, Polish forces engaged Lenin’s Red Army. The totalitarian option for reconstituting Poland arrived in Warsaw before being defeated by Polish forces in what Poles call the “Miracle of the Vistula.”

Would the new Polish state be built on the principles of democracy and constitutional government? Or would it follow the emerging totalitarian options to the east (Soviet communism) and to the west (German national socialism)?

Read more at National Catholic Register

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