Karol Wojtyla, the Pope Who Spoke Truth to Poland
Riccardo Cristiano 5 November 2019

On August 13th 1961 Berlin discovered the existence of the Wall. That day all connections between the two sectors of Berlin, East and West, were stopped, in compliance with decisions made by the communist regime. Under the astonished eyes of the population on both sides, an insurmountable barrier began to take shape, accompanied by an order to fire on anyone who tried to cross it.

March 1992. In a famous article published by the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote, “What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this Pope, without the great role that he has played on the world scene.” These words awaken us, reminding us for how long that system was respected and even glorified by many. So remembering what John Paul II did is important, not for the anniversary, but so as to understand it. What did he do? With fear and glorification in mind, we discover that John Paul II had the strength to say “the king is naked.”


The challenges of a new Pope

It is strange. It is precisely this hypothesis that provides topicality to the work of the Polish Pope, and we see this more clearly when dwelling on one detail that brings him closer to today’s Pope Francis. The pontificate of John Paul II had in fact just begun when, in Assisi, an interlocutor told him not to forget the Church of silence. He replied that that Church no longer existed, because ever since he had been elected it had spoken through his voice. The pontificate of Francis also began with a similar invitation.  Sitting next to him during the 2013 conclave, when it became clear that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was about to become pope, Cardinal Claudio Hummes said to him, “Do not forget the poor.” Shortly afterwards, speaking from the balcony, the Pope who came not from the east but from the south announced his name, Francis, as if to say that from that moment on the poor would speak with his voice.

This does not mean that two very different popes should be perceived as being similar. However, thirty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this leads us to understand that yesterday’s wall lives on in today’s walls.  Wojtyla and Bergoglio have both pointed out the nakedness of various monarchs, but it is precisely the peripheries of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a living challenge to widespread globalization, that, thirty years later, have led us to the heart of the urgency expressed by John Paul II.

As a son of the East, Wojtyla wanted a compact Church, as a son of the global south Bergoglio wants a multifaceted one. But diversity does not prevent what is new from making us better understand the old. For example, nowadays we know everything about the crimes of the Soviet system. But what about us and our relationship with that system? Why did we consider paramount Wojtyla’s material aid to Solidarnosc, that is to say the Vatican funding although it was mainly American? This may be the case for anyone who remembers that in Yalta, Stalin is said to have asked how many divisions the pope could provide, even though we now perceive that aid, that funding, as the most problematic legacy for the Church. But is that the point? Or does this not prevent the appearance of another story?


A historic journey

Let us proceed in an orderly manner. As soon as he was elected, Pope Karol Wojtyla began to think about his first trip to Poland. Instructions arrived quite soon and his collaborators informed the authorities in Warsaw that the new pontiff intended to visit the country in May 1979 for the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaw. It is said that the Holy See immediately specified that a two days visit would have been sufficient. The Poles, obviously, did not know how to say no, even though they wanted to.  And so the Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, dismissed his Polish counterpart, Edward Gierek, telling him to do as he thought best, provided he did not complain about the consequences. The warning had its effect and Warsaw presented a great many requests to the Vatican, among which the imperative to move the date. According to a reconstruction published by Spanish ABC news, the central point was “no May, no commemoration of Stanislaw”. Only a later date would be acceptable.

The Holy See allowed time to go by and then indicated that it wanted to change the date, asking only for the visit to be extended by another four days. The agreement was therefore finalized and the greatest risk seemed to have been avoided. Obviously police and intelligence, surveillance and espionage operations involved half of Europe, from Frankfurt to East Berlin, from Moscow to Warsaw, with the Stasi, the police and other services involved in every possible way.

There were also very many infiltrators among the pilgrims and John Paul II was more aware of this than anyone else, well before he landed in Poland on June 2nd, 1979. That day, in Warsaw, he asked the Holy Spirit to descend and renew the face of the earth, adding only the word “this”:  “renew the face of this land.” Those words did not really add anything, but they changed everything.  There in Warsaw, a Polish Pope could say what everyone was thinking, but that no one dared say. Did the wall of fear come down at that moment? Probably not for everyone, probably not forever; but it showed everyone the missing window. Before material support was provided to Solidarnosc, the fact worth highlighting is precisely this; walls crush people for as long as one allows them to be frightening.  That thought meant believing that the journey was not over.


Patience and dialogue

Wojtyla’s choice was not based on the calculation of realpolitik or realism, but they placed him at the service of the principles and interests of the people. Proof of this can be found in the Wojtyla-Casaroli pairing. It was Casaroli, who in the days of Paul VI had developed and managed the famous “ostpolitik”, the policy of patience and dialogue with regimes of the East. It was he who in 1979 was chosen by the Pope as the new Secretary of State. Prudence at the service of courage, and not the opposite was at the basis of the approach used by John Paul II and this would not have been possible without Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. This because the fear and glorification persisting at the time confirmed that the great “Wojtyla novelty” was his refusal to accept out of self-interest the giant with clay feet.

History has provided us with so many examples of this, from Kissinger onwards there have been so many indications that the political world considered it impossible to change things in the East. A challenge was excluded because nobody wanted to take action from the exterior. And what about from inside?

This realism overlapped with political judgments unaware of the power of time (i.e. of processes) with respect to space (i.e. power) that was considered sealed. In 1989 Helmut Kohl had stated that neither he nor his interlocutor would live long enough to see the German unification, a unification that took place the following year.

John Paul II broke from within what seemed unbreakable from the outside and he did it with Cardinal Casaroli next to him, because while the pastor had to think of his flock, the head of state had to look for new diplomatic relations with Soviet bloc countries. This incontrovertible fact is proved by what he said in his first speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, when he expressed the desire to once again see in the Vatican diplomats from those countries that once had relations with the Holy See. This was an explicit reference. It is in this context that material aid provided to Solidarnosc made sense. Not instigating an uprising but believing in a process.

 What was it that marked the beginning of this process? There had been the rejection of the Hungarian model in which the Church led by Cardinal Lékai effectively stood by the regime in exchange for being left in peace. Commenting on a speech made by the Polish Primate Wyszynski before the conclave that explicitly referred to the Hungarian primate of the time, Wojtyla said, “It’s the worthy response to the pusillanimity of Cardinal Lékai.” And what had he said to Wyszynski? He said that the Soviet system was not fate, but a reality experiencing a crisis. And it was thus that when the old and in every sense tired Cardinal of Prague, Tomàsek, showed himself incapable of continuing to fight and therefore in spite of himself ready to distance himself from the critical ferment caused by the regime of Charter 77, he received private letters and encouragement from the Pope until the new beginning with Charter 77.


Words that matter

Another connecting element was the constant work done within and by the world of diplomacy. The three visits to Poland before the fall of the Wall, in 1979, 1983 and 1987 were the main confirmation of this and the person who expressed it better than all others was Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, after the 1987 visit: “Only his words could prevent a civil war.” Exaggerations? Professor Andrea Riccardi has provided information on this subject that really explains a great deal. Riccardi in fact reported a Soviet opinion that compared Wojtyla’s visits to a return home of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Two aspects thus appear; the first concerns fear, which compared to the not too distant days of Yalta and sarcasm about the Pope’s divisions, had moved to the Soviet camp. Thanks to this comparison the Soviets fully comprehended the importance of the work done by the Church. The second aspect was the Soviets’ ability to understand to what extent the mobilisation of millions of people is really difficult to keep under control. Eduard Shevardnadze was not exaggerating.

John Paul II’s three visits to Poland before the fall of the Wall were therefore at the heart of a historical season that certainly did not end with those three trips. This crucial chapter, the passage from resignation to transformation, cannot be said to be fully narrated without taking into account dialogue and evident internal contradictions. All this involved Gorbachev, Jaruzelski and the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The first element, dialogue, can be well understood reading the words Wojtyla said to Gorbachev during their first meeting in the Vatican, “The efforts you are making are not only of a great interest to us. We share them” ,as well as others attributed to Wojtyla by the expert on Polish issues, Tad Szulc, and addressed at General Jaruzelski in 1983, during the Pope’s second pilgrimage to Poland. “General, do not take offence. I am not opposed to socialism, but I just want it to have a human face.”

Professor Andrea Riccardi expressly mentions this in his biography of John Paul II, saying, “Was the Pope thinking of an evolution of socialism towards democratic forms?” It was Jaruzelski who, in 1990, allegedly told Cardinal Casaroli that, “Time has taught us humility. It has taught us sensitivity for universal values.” All this goes together with another aspect of the issue, the one we called “contradictions.” In fact, it concerns the Christian world itself and is visible in Wojtyla’s 1987 portrayal of the policies of the Patriarchate of Moscow, an extremely important link in the complex Eastern mechanism. This is what he said to Andrea Riccardi on the subject that same year, “The Russian Church’s problem is Caesaropapism. Now, as in the days of the tsars, the same mentality continues. That is why they always and in every way depend on the state. Of course they too have had their martyrs. And so many! But they cannot say this and talk about it. And then there is the idea of a third Rome that is still after all alive; that of making the Church of Moscow the new Rome. Caesaropapism is the problem.”

So to reread the story of the role played by Karol Wojtyla in the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years later, after having deluded ourselves that we were witnessing the end of the era of Walls, means discovering that memory deceives us if it doesn’t help understand that those years have not yet passed. Those who rejoiced in the fall of the Wall of yesterday, today perhaps rejoice in erecting another… while the Caesaropapists are always very powerful, now also in the Catholic world.



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