To help the nation
Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ
Ending his second pilgrimage to his Homeland John Paul II put forward a demand to the leaders of the regime not to fight against the nation, wanting to be free, but to talk to people! Before an attempt to answer the question whether and how the Pope’s appeal, full of concern and wisdom, would be realised by the hypocritical regime is made, one needs to see the historical context of those days, which passed between the second and the third visit of the Polish Pope to his beloved Homeland.
The 1980s were a period of deep transformations and extraordinary social-political dynamics. The communist East and the capitalist West were in the condition of antagonistic tension although in the early ‘80s the tension was not so acute like in the previous decade. The main source of the lesser tension was the fact of the obvious predominance of the West with the United States at the lead on the social, economic and military level. The welfare of the capitalist world outpaced the so-called socialist block, plunging into the complex of growing poverty and economic regress with the accompaniment of mad propaganda. The rapid development of the mass media increased the penetrability of the barriers dividing two blocks that had been hermeneutically closed.
In this background, as certain personification of the transformations in the world, the figures of the US President Ronald Reagan and the new, after Leonid Brezhnev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, and then the President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev.
The former – Ronald Reagan – personified the economically and military powerful capitalist West. Explicitly anti-communist, conscious of the powerful resources of his country and its military power, he imposed such a rapid tempo of armaments that the communist empire of Eastern Europe was not able to keep and trying to do that it was falling into an increasingly bigger economic regression, which was soon followed by a political and social crisis.
The promoter and personification of those transformations in the East was Mikhail Gorbachev. After the first secretaries: Malenkov, Chernenko and Brezhnev, with his famous doctrine of limited independence of the satellite countries, Gorbachev attempted to reconsider the firm rules of communism. In the end, his attempt led to the fall of the communist empire, opening the way to the fall of the so-called socialist block and consequently, to political independence of the satellite countries. Poland was to play a special role among those countries.
Poland of the 1980s
The Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ in Poland was a signal of the approaching earthquake in the whole block. Although ‘Solidarity’ was to experience a difficult struggle with the unyielding communist regime of Brezhnev’s epoch it was his decline. In Poland it assumed the era of General Jaruzelski, i.e. the last stage of the Polish communism in its most primitive shape.
Unfortunately, the request-demand directed at the end of the second pilgrimage to Poland was realised in the opposite way. The suggested dialogue was replaced by terror and propaganda that irritated people. Violence followed the persecutions of ‘Solidarity’ activists and priests who supported ‘Solidarity.’ The regime did not hesitate to conduct treacherous assassinations, officially arranged by ‘unknown perpetrators’ and in fact, paid by the Security Service. A classical example of such a murder was the martyr’s death of Fr Popieluszko and the atmosphere of baiting, provocation and harassment. The case of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko was not isolated.
However, one must objectively state that the repressed ‘Solidarity’ did not yield but kept resisting the hostile regime. There were various demonstrations, manifesting hostility against the oppressive regime and steadfast will for national independence.
After ‘Solidarity’ and its structures had been suppressed the country was in a state of permanent turmoil. The nation, having experienced partial freedom, did not want to give up. The structures, which had originated with much effort, survived and their main leaders did not stop their activities. Unfortunately, some of them left the country but most of them worked in the underground structures and continued their struggle for freedom, using every opportunity to let the nation know about their existence. But it was not only negative and ostentatiously hostile activities. Facing the intellectual violence, used by the stupefying communist propaganda and mad ideologisation of education people attempted to conduct independent courses, press and even art and cinematography. It was a kind of work at the grass roots, which with time the coarse regime could not oppose. A classical example was the opposition centre in Nowa Huta-Mistrzejowice (a district of Krakow) at the Church of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
But there was another important factor of Poland’s situation in the 1980s. It was the Church with her specific role, which she was to play at the turning point of the Nation’s history.
The Church at the centre of the national matter
After having completed the second pilgrimage to his homeland the Polish Pope found himself in the centre of the tempo of his pontificate, which was more and more appreciated and admired after the assassination attempt.
Apart from publishing such important ecclesiastical documents as the apostolic letter ‘Salvifici doloris’ (1984) and the Letter to the Youth of the World (1985) as well as the important encyclicals ‘Slavorum apostoli’ (1985) and ‘Dominum et Vivificantem’ (1986), he continued his visits to Europe (Holland, France), to the Far East and Canada. His long visit to Korea and the exotic trip to Muslim Tunisia (Casablanca 1985) deserve special attention.
Among the ordinary matters of his pontificate of that period one should mention the publication of the revised Code of Canon Law and the inauguration of the Youth Days.
The second significant matter was the reorganisation of the Roman Curia, the central mechanism of his increasingly dynamic pontificate. The enumerated elements constitute only the important trends of the rich activities of the new Pope. One should add his regular Wednesday audiences and increasing number of private audiences, visits to the Roman parishes and to Roman cities.
Finally, we should mention the extraordinary Bishops’ Synod dedicated to the Second Vatican Council. It was a response to the opinions about the need of a new universal council. The canonisation of Fr Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1982) and the beatification of Edith Stein (1987) were important events, too.
Summing up, one should say that the constantly young, although harassed by illnesses, Pope from ‘distant country’ did not spare any efforts. On the contrary, besides dealing with current issues he promoted new initiatives, enriching the life of the Church.
However, his zealous involvement in the rhythm of the universal Church’s life did not make him forget his beloved Homeland. Besides his constant concern for our national matters he watched the ruthless fight of Jaruzelski’s regime against ‘Solidarity’ that kept resisting its liquidation. And thus we reflect on the wide support, which the Church gave to the movement of transformations in Poland from the beginning. We know what the involvement of the Church looked like during the strikes prepared by ‘Solidarity’. The cross and the picture of Our Lady were the banners of the strike in the Gdansk Shipyard and the priests ministering the sacraments accompanied the workers in the shipyard in Szczecin, the workers in the steel works in Nowa Huta and the miners from Silesia, who all fought for independence.
This was the situation in the beginning. Then one could see more clearly the connection between the Polish Church and ‘Solidarity’, which was treated badly and trampled by the communist system already affected by the bug of inner decay. The police system, which had been built to an unbelievable size, persecuted the prominent members of ‘Solidarity’, who found shelter in various ecclesiastical institutions. We can give the example of Wroclaw and Cardinal Gulbinowicz saving the finances of the illegal ‘Solidarity’. The Church organised help for the imprisoned, for their families, repressed and persecuted by the oppressive state.
Finally, the Church became the centre of underground free education, art and worthy entertainment, the example being the above-mentioned church in Mistrzejowice.
The state authorities were aware of the support of the Church for the Nation that fought for independence but did not dare to fight with the Church openly, although they did their best to make her life and activities (education, construction of new churches, press) as difficult as possible. In order to threaten ordinary priests the Security Service organised a ruthless battue using brutal methods, including threats of death and, like in the case of Blessed Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, its tragic realisation. Besides the chaplain of ‘Solidarity’ the victims included Fr Suchowolec and Fr Niedzielak as well as Fr Jancarz and Fr Chojnacki who died several years after long months of harassment.
On 13 January 1987 General Jaruzelski was in the Vatican and presented his vision of the situation in Poland to the Pope. But John Paul II knew what to think about it. And his fatherly heart tried to help the tormented Nation, being at the end of its tether, but so close to its final victory.