Published September 1, 1997

Crisis Magazine

“Before he got here I was worried,” a Polish friend confessed during Pope John Paul II’s homecoming pilgrimage this past June. “I thought the people might be tired of him. But he’s done it again. It’s like 1979.”

The comparison to those eight days in June 1979 on which the history of the twentieth century pivoted was a bit of an exaggeration; nothing quite so dramatic as the collapse of communism is likely to emerge from the pope’s June 1997 visit to Poland. But in terms of popular response, 1997 was every bit as impressive as 1979.

Indeed, the argument could be made that it was more impressive. In 1979, John Paul II was a figure around whom more than 90 percent of the Polish nation could rally in expressing its contempt for “them”-their communist masters. That the pope could still draw immense throngs eight years after the revolution, absent that single focal point of public animosity, tells us something important about both John Paul II and contemporary Poland.

Specter of 1991

My friend was not the only one worried about how things would go in June 1997. The Polish bishops were concerned about turnouts and fretted about the kind of reception the Holy Father would receive from the press. Poles who had been in Rome in recent months, aware of how little their countrymen had seen of the pope since his physical condition has weakened, worried about the shock effects of wall-to-wall television coverage; might people think that John Paul II had come home to die, or to bid his countrymen farewell? There also was considerable concern about the way in which the present Polish government, dominated by ex-communists (or “postcommunists,” as they are known) would handle the visit; at the very least, President Alexander Kwasniewski, a postcommunist of Clintonesque plasticity and shamelessness, could be expected to exploit his face-time with the pope for electoral purposes.

Underlying all these concerns, however, was the unhappy memory of the pope’s last major pilgrimage through Poland in June 1991, an event that everyone now concedes was the least effective of John Paul II’s Polish visits. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it seems that a disappointment in 1991 was virtually inevitable. In those heady days, Poles still were reveling in their newly won freedom. John Paul II wanted to talk about the moral boundaries necessary if democracy and the market were to serve genuinely human ends. Poles were absorbed in, and in some cases overwhelmed by, the quotidian realities of their new lives as free laborers, consumers, and citizens. John Paul II spoke against a transcendent horizon. Poles expected the pope to celebrate their new freedom with them on his first visit to postcommunist Poland; the theme chosen for the pilgrimage, the Ten Commandments, made theoretical sense (the moral foundations of democracy and civil society, etc.) but, in the event, set the pope up to be dismissed as a nay-sayer. Then there was the abortion debate, which in the months between the communist crackup and the pope’s pilgrimage had been handled badly by Church officials and Solidarity-affiliated politicians alike.

The difficulties of the 1991 visit became, in turn, the empirical foundation on which papal biographers like Tad Szulc, Carl Bernstein, and Marco Politi, and publicists like the late Peter Hebblethwaite, fashioned the image of John Paul II: the angry old man incapable of understanding the world he helped create. Give the pope grudging marks for having helped dismantle communism. But as for building a democratic future-who needed this embittered, cranky, out-of-touch scold?

All of which was, of course, pluperfect nonsense. But enough had misfired in 1991 to give the “angry old man” image a certain surface plausibility. And since much of the Western press has been content to deal with this pontificate at a surface level for the better part of two decades, that was more than sufficient.

The 1997 Difference

Why was June 1997 so different from June 1991? The recent papal pilgrimage was much better prepared than its predecessor. For almost a year, thoughtful Polish spokesmen for the pontificate like Father Maciej Zieba, O.P. (no stranger to Crisis readers), conducted a broad-gauged campaign in the media, among intellectuals, and within Church circles to prepare the ground for the pope’s visit. Zieba himself did a weekly series of public television programs in the three months before the pope arrived, laying to rest the canard that there are “two Wojtylas” (i.e., the “enlightened social progressive” and the “rigid doctrinal conservative”) by demonstrating patiently and persuasively how the Magisterium of John Paul II was, to borrow an image, a seamless garment. Zieba’s Krakow-based Tertio Millennio Institute also sponsored a year-long series of intellectual encounters at which Church leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and journalists met to consider the large question, “To what Poland will the pope return?” Other institutes around the country picked up the idea and conducted similar dialogues.

In 1991 there was no Polish Catholic press agency. By June 1997 a highly efficient Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna was in place, sponsored by the Polish bishops conference under the leadership of then-Bishop Jozef Zycinski (who shortly after the papal visit was named archbishop of Lublin). KAI published an informative 114-page media guide to the visit, which was noteworthy both for its frankness in describing the Polish ecclesiastical and political scenes and its sense of fidelity to the pope whose purposes it was trying to serve. (The English-language guide also had several charming typos, as when the beatification of Blessed Edith Stein became her “beautification”-which, come to think of it, is perfectly orthodox theology of a Balthasarian flavor.) Throughout the eleven days of the papal pilgrimage, a squadron of young media professionals, recruited to work at KAI, equipped with cellular phones and pouring out press releases and papal speech addenda on the latest computer equipment, helped get the story out in a far more intelligent way than had been the case in 1991. And the results, throughout the world press, were impressive.

The social psychology of the June 1997 visit also was dramatically different. As my friend Henryk Wozniakowski, president of the Znak publishing house, put it, the Poles, after eight years of democratic capitalist busyness, were eager to experience again a more “liturgical rhythm” in their lives. Poland’s new democracy, for all that it has been one of the most successful in East Central Europe, also has thrown a lot more questions about the public moral order onto the national agenda than had been the case in 1991, when the sole focus of attention was the abortion controversy. What John Paul II had tried to say in June 1991-that democracy was an ongoing moral experiment in a people’s capacity to be self-governing, and that a democracy blind to transcendent moral values would sooner or later implode into new forms of repression-the Poles were much better situated to hear in 1997. (Centesimus Annus, the landmark social encyclical issued just before the pope’s 1991 Polish pilgrimage, discussed these themes at length and in depth but got virtually no attention in Poland until the last two years-an apt symbol for the difference between then and now.)

The Holy Father was, of course, the key to the “1997 difference.” Those who expected another visit from that mythical papal scold were sorely disappointed, as John Paul II preached a message of encouragement, affection, and challenge in more than two dozen major addresses. To Poles frustrated by the bitter wrangling that had just before produced a new constitution satisfying nobody, John Paul II urged taking a longer historical view. What Poles were living today-a free Church in a free and reasonably secure state-was a rare and precious gift; indeed, it hadn’t happened in Poland for centuries. Make this the occasion to deepen the foundations of civil society, which is the precondition to sustaining democracy, he proposed. Think of citizenship less as a burden and more as a vocation: a vocation to enliven all the spheres of life-political, social, economic-with the leaven of the Gospel. Look to your roots, not nostalgically, but as a source of the virtues necessary to make the free society work. And be proud of what your entrepreneurial spirit has accomplished.

Working the Crowds

Sir John Gielgud once said that the pope, a fellow actor, had a perfect sense of timing and delivery. June 1997 bore out Sir John’s judgment.

At Gorzow in Wielkopolska a crowd of two hundred thousand had been anticipated; four hundred thousand turned up. After his formal homily, John Paul II spontaneously recounted how, on the day of his election in 1978, the Polish primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, had said to him, “You are to lead the Church into its third millennium.” He was “getting more advanced in years,” the pope said, and he hoped that those present would “ask God on your knees . . . that I am able to meet this challenge.” The crowd erupted into a chant of “We will help you! We will help you!” Which just happened to be precisely the chant used by workers challenged by Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek in 1970. And to which antiphon the pope immediately replied, “I recognize those words, but I hope it will be better this time.”

At Czestochowa, home of the Black Madonna, a congregation of half a million began chanting “Long live the pope!” after the Gospel reading. To which John Paul replied, “He does, he does, and he grows older . . .”

But it was at Ludzmierz, a Marian shrine in the Tatra mountains that Karol Wojtyla loves so well, that the pope’s spontaneous dialogue with his countrymen overflowed emotionally. At the end of the joint recitation of the rosary, the enormous throng began to sing an old song about a Pole in exile, “Highlander, Don’t You Want to go Home?” And it became almost unbearable: The tough, craggy Polish Highlanders were crying, and tears were welling up in the pope’s eyes.

Then there was one of the pilgrimage’s last events, the pope’s meeting with Poland’s intellectual leadership at Krakow’s Collegiate Church of St. Anne, close by the venerable Jagiellonian University. The occasion was the six hundredth anniversary of the university’s Faculty of Theology, in which Karol Wojtyla had both studied and taught. The faculty had been closed by the communist regime in 1954, and resistance to that act of aggression against Polish culture was one of the leitmotifs of Cardinal Wojtyla’s episcopal ministry in Krakow for fifteen years. It was the end of a long day-the pope had celebrated Mass for more than 1.6 million Krakovians and other Polish pilgrims earlier that morning-and the plan called for the pope to walk straight to his chair at the front of the ornate baroque church and get right into his address. But John Paul II was having none of it. He spent forty minutes working the crowd, tossing old nicknames back and forth with friends, inquiring about wives, husbands, and grandchildren, getting back in touch-literally-with the men and women of culture and science who were, in many respects, his most intense interlocutors for almost thirty years. And throughout the entire forty minutes of the pope’s peregrination through St. Anne’s, the audience of quite proper middle-aged academics was on its feet, applauding.

Krakow Revisited

Native son though he is of the provincial town of Wadowice, Karol Wojtyla is most assuredly a Krakovian-“my beloved Krakow,” as he referred to it more than once. And Krakow was ready for him: stores selling Nikes, baby food, and jewelry sported papal flags and portraits of the pope; the main streets were decorated with red/white (Poland), yellow/white (Vatican), and blue/white (Krakow) banners; and the churches remained open all night for confessions before the June 8 Mass at which John Paul II would canonize another Krakovian, the Blessed Queen Jadwiga (1374-1399), whose remains rest in Wawel Cathedral, next door to the royal palace where she lived with her husband, King Wladyslaw Jagiello. (In a move that was undoubtedly prudent, but also oddly suggestive of Poland’s ancient cultural capital having been suddenly relocated to certain counties in the Deep South, the city fathers decreed that Krakow would be dry from the night before the pope arrived until the night after he left.)

Eight hundred thousand tickets had been printed for the Mass, to be held in Blonia Krakowskie, the Krakow Meadows, a huge greensward several acres larger than Vatican City; those tickets were gone two weeks before the Mass. And the lack of a ticket was not going to prevent at least another eight hundred thousand Poles from attending Jadwiga’s canonization. Mass was scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. the entire ticketed section was filled, as Poles by the hundreds of thousands walked (and often marched, under banners and singing hymns) through the car-free streets of the city to the Blonia. It was, among other things, a reminder of how colorful Catholicism can be: in addition to laity in all modes of dress, ranging from teenage grunge to Highlander formal (complete with fur-trimmed hats), there were black Benedictines; white Dominicans and Camaldolese; brown Franciscans; gray Albertines; prelates displaying scarlet, violet, purple, green, and black sashes and nuns in a variety of elegant habits. (The police estimate of the total congregation, which the authorities admitted was on the low side, was 1.6 million. Other estimates ranged as high as two million. It was, in any case, the second largest gathering in Polish history, topped only by the pope’s Mass on the same spot in June 1979.)

At Ludzmierz, a Marian shrine in the Tatra mountains that Karol Wojtyla loves so well, the pope’s spontaneous dialogue with his countrymen overflowed emotionally. At the end of the joint recitation of the rosary, the enormous throng began to sing an old song about a Pole in exile, “Highlander, Don’t You Want to go Home?” And it became almost unbearable: The tough, craggy Polish Highlanders were crying, and tears were welling up in the pope’s eyes.

The early morning was overcast and cool, but, sure enough, the sun came out just as the pope reached the cathedra that had been prepared for him under an enormous white-and-gold modernistic baldachino, and stayed out through the entire two-and-a-half-hour Mass. The pope preached, obviously, on the new Saint Jadwiga, a model of his distinctive feminism who combined deep personal piety with a strong social conscience, a commitment to intellectual life and culture, impressive political and diplomatic skills, and a vision of a multiethnic, multicultural Europe that the pope obviously finds appealing.

The Mass was not without its liturgical solecisms, including a hopelessly inadequate arrangement for the distribution of Holy Communion. And three hours of music prior to the Mass, as well as one or two hymns during it, demonstrated that, among many other undesirables, the United States is exporting that dreadful Andrew Lloyd Webber/Stephen Sondheim style of contemporary hymnody. But if you have never been at Mass with two million intensely pious fellow congregants; if you have never seen two million people kneel, spontaneously and simultaneously, as the consecration approached; if you have never been in a crowd of two million people who were quietly attentive during a twenty-five-minute homily-well, then, you have missed . . . something.

Which Church?

As mentioned above, the theme Fr. Zieba’s Tertio Millennio Institute used to organize the intellectual preparation for the pope’s visit was, “To what Poland will the pope return?” Which was entirely appropriate for intellectuals, churchmen, and politicians thinking about what had happened in their country since the downfall of communism, and what the pope’s impending visit might say to those circumstances. But the June 1997 papal pilgrimage also addressed, subtly but unmistakably, the question, “Which Church will succeed the Wyszynski Church, the church of the anticommunist resistance, in democratic Poland?”

The conventional liberal/conservative taxonomy is even more hopeless in parsing Polish Catholicism than it is in the West (where it is, to be sure, hopeless enough). In Poland, the choice is between the Wojtyla Church and a style of Catholicism that in fact antedates Cardinal Wyszynski and reaches back into a mythologized past for its ecclesiology and its vision of the public Church. The Wojtyla Church is not reticent about the intense Catholicism of the Polish nation; on the contrary, it sees in that Catholicism, and the public virtues it inculcates, the best, and perhaps only, available cultural foundation for a Polish democracy that is prosperous, free, and virtuous-virtue being understood as the precondition to long-term prosperity and political freedom. But the Wojtyla Church has internalized Vatican II’s teaching on the lay vocation in the world, on the Church as a public (as distinguished from partisan) actor, and on the priority of culture to politics and economics in the dynamics of the free society. In the Wojtyla Church, there is no clericalism, in the sense of a priestly and/or episcopal usurpation of political judgment; the episcopate functions as a public conscience, not as a collection of ward bosses delivering the vote to a particular political party; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are fostered as goods in themselves and as essential for the nurturing of civil society; and the realm of culture, not the maneuverings of the Sejm (Poland’s parliament), is where Catholic leaders and intellectuals focus their primary attention.

The alternative Church, perhaps best limned as nationalist, is the precise opposite. It is intensely clerical, bishops and priests being understood to have a positive moral obligation to instruct their congregants on matters political. A self-consciously Catholic political party, tethered to the hierarchy, is a prime desideratum. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have only one purpose: the conversion of the wayward to the true fold. And a rather large, paternalistic role is envisaged for the state. Imagine contemporary secular French statism married to Jansenist Catholicism and flavored with a heavy dose of Gaullist anti-Anglophonism, and you begin to get the picture. That many good and pious Catholics adhere to this vision of the Church is not in question. What is at issue is the ecclesiology of Polish nationalist Catholicism and its capacity to be an engine of Polish cultural renewal in a postmodern twenty-first century.

The most visible embodiment of the nationalist view is Radio Maria, which averages some three-plus-million listeners and takes the view that the Church in Poland today is worse off than at the height of Stalinist persecution. The demographics of its listenership (primarily women over sixty) suggest that Radio Maria is not the future of the Polish Church. But it has influence and it provides a useful foil for liberal anticlericals who have found the Wojtyla Church (as represented, say, by Bishop Zycinski and Fr. Zieba) increasingly difficult to portray as antediluvian. Listen to Radio Maria, the secular left will say. Here is the real Polish Catholicism: narrow, bigoted, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and authoritarian.

In his addresses during his June pilgrimage, John Paul II had a word of encouragement or praise for virtually every apostolic movement or initiative in Poland; but he simply said nothing about Radio Maria or its boisterous spokesman, a certain Fr. Rydzyk. But in this case, to vary Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, silence did not “betokeneth consent.” On June 5, after the broadcast of a particularly egregious piece of papal textual exegesis by Fr. Rydzyk, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued an official statement stating that the Radio Maria priest spoke only for himself: not for the pope, the Holy See, or the Polish episcopate. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, it was Q.E.D. No doubt the pope’s personal and pastoral solicitude extends to Radio Maria’s operators and listeners. But he will not have his ecclesiological vision compromised by any hint of accommodation to that particular agenda.

After the canonization Mass at Blonia Krakowskie, Dr. Navarro-Valls and the secretary of the Polish Bishops Conference, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek (a former member of Cardinal Wojtyla’s chancery staff), held a press conference, during which a reporter asked whether there were not serious rifts in the Polish hierarchy. Bishop Pieronek gave the perfect, and truthful, answer. On matters of essential doctrine, he said, the bishops were entirely at one. As for the way in which the Church, in the persons of its episcopal leaders, should relate to the public order: Well, Pieronek continued, the bishops had different views on that-which is precisely how things worked in a normal society.

A normal society is what Poles said they wanted during the hard days of martial law in the early 1980s. A normal society is what Poles now have. That they have found discomfort in democratic normality is, well, normal. That the ongoing unsettledness of a normal society is now being recognized as a challenge rather than merely a burden bodes well for Polish democracy. That the Wojtyla Church is the only serious option in Polish Catholicism for the future bodes well for the Church’s evangelization of culture.

It was, in sum, a very good eleven days’ work for John Paul II.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today