Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

St. John Paul II as freedom-fighter for Poland helped ignite "revolution of conscience" in Central and Eastern Europe in the '70s, then ringed by Iron Curtain. One by one totalitarian regimes, beginning with Poland, fell. Czechoslovakia in "Velvet Revolution" that installed poet-playwright/jailed dissident Vaclav Havel, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia and---most spectacular of all---crumbling of Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification of divided Germany in 1990, and collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Square with his ringing "Be not afraid" message to totalitarian-gripped
Eastern European nations on Oct. 22, 1978, months before his epochal Nine Days Pilgrimage to his native Poland
  (L'Osservatore Romano)

Aboard the plane to Europe last week I struck up conversation with a blonde stewardess with delicate features, perhaps in her late '20s, named Patricia. She turned out to be from a town in Poland not too far from Pope John Paul II's native  Wadovice. I told her I was going to cover the twin canonizations in Rome and that I have been to a number of places in Poland---most notably to the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa,  popularly known as the "Black Madonna," the Poles' most revered icon.

We talked about reports that millions of her countrymen were expected in Rome and that I'm not surprised, as Pope John Paul II had really fought for the freedom of the Poles from Communist rule. We spoke about this phenomenon and the stewardess was probably just a little girl in those years when Bishop and later Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was opposing Marxist rule--- and strengthening the resolve of the trade union "Solidarity," under the dynamic Lech Walesa, to assert Polish independence and freedom.

Suddenly tears welled in Patricia's eyes and she was choked with emotion. 

Later at St. Peter's Square, as I interviewed various groups, the Poles, in full force from various towns and cities of Poland and waving their respective banners, were most eager to profess their love and gratitude for JPII.


During the war years Karol Wojtyla, later Pope JPII was involved in a clandestine theater he helped organized and acted in, called "Rhapsodic Theater." He was also a playwright and poet (this blog will publish a couple of his poems later).

As we all know, a vast understanding of culture and humanism is always derived from artistic endeavors, and these became added tools to his deep spirituality---so that as bishop, cardinal and then Pope for 26 years, JPII succeeded in helping revive the patriotism and nationalism of his compatriots.

The Polish people had been under oppressive dictatorial rule---first under the German Nazi regime whose tanks rolled across Poland in 1938, igniting World War II, and later, for a longer period, under the puppet Soviet regime. It took JPII to rally the  Poles' patriotic fervor, even as he sought to strengthen the beleaguered church in Poland.


In his two-volume magnum opus on John Paul II's life, writer/professor George Weigel details how JPII became a pivotal figure in the defeat of European Communism, which he waged largely in defense of freedom of religious worship and human rights---with his unique combination of insight, experience and courage, and deep spirituality.  Early on, first as novice and then priest in Wadovice and later as young bishop in Krakow, Karol Wojtyla had fought the oppressive rule that had made life very tough for his superior, the elderly Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who was under house arrest for some years.

Wojtyla was well-prepared for this role, for he knew communism inside out and was battle-tested to fight dictatorships. During the Second World War he was conscripted by Nazi forces to work as laborer in a quarry and later in the Solvay chemical factory (where he had to wear wooden shoes). This became his way to earn a living and avoid deportation to Germany. But evenings Karol Wojtyla spent in his studies for the priesthood in the clandestine major seminary of Krakow. 

His early combat-training against Marxist ideology helped him to also address more forcefully in later years the Marxist-oriented "liberation theology" that had held tremendous attraction for some members of the Church in poverty-stricken Latin America.


As Pope, John Paul II conducted three fateful pilgrimages to his native country, then under the puppet Soviet regime, which the authorities fiercely tried to block. His pilgrimages were conducted in June 1979 during which he spent nine historic days all over Poland,  another in June 1983, and finally in June 1987.  Author Weigel cited the opinion of John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University, reputed to be the foremost American historian of the Cold War era, who stressed, "When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland--- and ultimately everywhere---would come to an end."

The Marxists obviously had more than an inkling of trouble with the Pope's ringing message articulated at a massive gathering at St. Peter's Square in 1982, titled "Be not afraid." In his first pilgrimage to Poland, JPII lamented to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Soviet-installed strongman, straight to his face, how "Poland was one great concentration camp." The regime rightly read, as Weigel noted, that JPII's defense of human rights threatened to unravel the entire 'socialist order.'

The Pope had lent tremendous moral courage to the Solidarity movement led by Walesa, so that during JPII's second pilgrimage in 1983, state authorities refused to allow him to go to Gdansk, the hotbed of the movement. The Pope threatened to go back to Rome if he was not allowed to see the Solidarity leader. With the whole world watching that fierce duel, the authorities caved in but they downplayed the Gdansk get-together as a "strictly private meeting." But as Weigel quoted a papal aide snorting, "There's no such thing as a private meeting with the Pope."


The entire point of JPII's second Poland pilgrimage, asserted Weigel, was to show that the movement for freedom and solidarity in his native country hadn't died, and thus the meeting with Walesa proved to be "a very decisive moment." A "revolution in conscience" got underway for the Polish people.  A month later martial law was lifted in Poland and the overt spy aparachik was dismantled.

But in October 1985, when news that Lech Walesa was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was received, new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov flew into a rage,  igniting his paranoia about the Church in Poland.  As Weigel narrated, Gen. Jaruzelski was ordered to prohibit Walesa from journeying to Stockholm, and instead his wife and son received the Nobel Award for him there.

More repressions followed in Poland, but the fuse had already been ignited. On June 4, 1989, even ahead of JPII's third pilgrimage to Poland, elections there gave an overwhelming majority for Solidarity and Tadeusz Mazowiecki became postwar Poland's first non-communist Prime Minister.


As George Weigel noted, the train of events in Poland led to the destruction of the Iron Curtain in Europe. On Nov. 14, 1989 aging Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek aligned the Church with Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" that erupted in massive non-violent demonstrations in Wenceslas Square in Prague, inspired by our own EDSA Revolution three years earlier. Playwright-poet and former imprisoned dissident Vaclav Havel (whom our own elder statesman Jovito Salonga admired fervently---he used to talk to this writer a lot about Havel) was installed as President of a free and democratic Czechoslovakia.


JPII and Vaclav Havel shared similar humanist backgrounds as men of culture and arts, and therefore the same healthy respect for human rights as freedom-fighters. Welcoming John Paul to Prague on April 21, 1990, President Havel laced his historic speech freely with, "I am not sure that I know what a miracle is...", as he stressed the phenomenal interventions of JPII on the Eastern European scene. But of course  Vaclav Havel knew WHO was the miracle, as quoted by author Weigel in these memorable passages on JPII:

"...I'm not sure that I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say that at this moment I am participating in a MIRACLE: in a country devastated by the ideology of hatred, the messenger of love has arrived; in a country devastated by the government of the ignorant, the living symbol of culture has arrived; in a country which until a short time ago was devastated by the idea of confrontation and division in the world, the messenger of peace, dialogue, mutual tolerance, esteem and calm understanding, the messenger of fraternal unity in diversity has arrived.

"During these long decades, the Spirit was banished from our country.  I have the honor of witnessing the moment in which its soil is kissed by the APOSTLE OF SPIRITUALITY. (emphasis BOC's)."


The domino effect continued in Central and Eastern Europe: aside from Poland and Czechoslovakia, the Marxist government fell in Hungary, where its Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was also, like Poland's Cardinal Wyszynski, embattled, forced to seek asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest for some years. There was also regime change in Rumania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.  

On Nov. 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall that was erected by the Soviets in August 1961 to prevent people from crossing from the Soviet-controlled part of Berlin to the Allied sector, came tumbling down---with over 5,000 people crossing to democracy's side; but 150 others were unlucky and died as martyrs for freedom. In October 1990 the reunification of the two Berlins became a reality.

Then, in 1991 came the collapse of the Soviet Union itself (I fully realize that the recent developments in the Ukraine could alter things somewhat, but that's another story---BOC).


All along Pope John Paul's moves were being watched by other world players with immense admiration. A notable fan was US President Ronald Reagan, known as the "Great Communicator" who, as Weigel noted, shared the Pope's mastery of words and flair for symbols and symbolic gestures.

There was also former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, in an audience with JPII at the Vatican, noted how the latter seemed to have chosen as themes for his US visit those that created some friction with his "primary constituency, the Catholics of the United States." In a straightforward reply, the Pope stressed to Kissinger that "The Church is in the business of truth," and that if he, its head, adapted his message to please every different audience, "Catholicism would end up as just another social service agency."

Weigel  wrote that "Kissinger was impressed, and later remembered thinking that 'no politician would ever say such a thing.' "