AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Historical experience teaches us that the success of popular movements depends almost always primarily on the moral worth and depth of conviction exhibited by a movement’s leaders. Nonetheless, such movements also almost always require a ground-breaking event to launch them, one that defines their character, aims, and strategy.
Thursday marked the 43rd anniversary of one such event when Pope John Paul II’s prayerful homily at Victory Square in Warsaw touched off his first of three pilgrimages to Poland and catalyzed a movement that helped take down the Soviet empire. By calling for an all-of-society renewal underpinned by an unyielding faith in God, Pope John Paul II defied the tyranny of Moscow and set in motion a great liberation for the peoples of Eastern Europe.
The very name of the square in which John Paul II made his remarks was a mockery considering that it was defeat, not victory, which led to its creation. Following the expulsion of the Nazis in 1944, Poles soon found that Moscow intended to continue their occupation, imposing Communist rule over the nation and only prolonging the isolation and suffering wrought by long years of war.
The Communist Party claimed that the Soviet-led coalition was victorious over fascism and systematically began imposing this great lie on Polish culture. Communist education authorities banned teaching about the Allies in schools, especially in the United States. In Victory Square, an Unknown Soldiers Tomb was erected to memorialize Communist forces lost in the fight against fascism and to symbolize the coming victory over the imperialist West and capitalism.
Part of this victory for the Soviets meant erasing the last vestiges of religion, particularly the Catholic faith. The Church stood as a hated Western institution that threatened the primacy of the Communist Party. Its priests and loyal followers were viewed as de facto foreign agents, not to be trusted or respected. At every turn, the Party sought to restrict the rights of the faithful to make religion altogether extinct in Poland and the rest of the territory under Soviet control.
That Pope John Paul II’s homily was delivered in Victory Square was thus no small symbolic victory for the millions toiling behind the Iron Curtain. In the midst of this monument to decades of Soviet lies and hatred appeared a gigantic Cross as a symbol of Providence. For the regime, it must have been seen as nothing more than a harbinger of doom.
The Communist Party in Warsaw denied Pope John Paul II’s request for a visit for more than a year before finally granting him entry to Poland in 1979. Unsurprisingly, the Interior Ministry launched an operation known as LATO 79 in March of that year to conduct “operation reconnaissance and preventative neutralization” of anti-Communist figures in the lead-up to the Pope’s visit. According to secret documents from the time, the Polish arm of the KGB was charged with surrounding John Paul II with at least ten agents at all times – not to protect him but to ensure that he adhered to the rules for his entry set by Moscow. His visit was to be purely religious, and he was barred from any political activity whatsoever, including meeting with leaders of the opposition.
To this end, the secret police recruited seventeen agents to spy on the Pope, including a close friend of the Pope who was a priest. Another paid agent of the Party was the brother-in-law of a younger colleague of the Pope’s from Krakow seminary, who spied on the Pope during his visit.
The KGB also spread rumors of attacks during the Pope’s speaking events, hoping to discourage Poles from attending. These efforts failed, and hundreds of thousands of Poles came to hear the Pope speak, sending a defiant signal to the regime that the faith was far from fading in Poland and the spirit of Polish independence was alive and well.
In Victory Square on that day in June 1979, the Pope delivered an undeniable rebuke of the Communist regime and a reaffirmation of spiritual principals which defied Soviet domination. “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography,” he declared. “Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land.”
This message of the centrality of Christ usurped the Communist Party’s message that the state, and not Christ, should be at the center of public life. Rather than viewing oneself only in relation to economic class or social standing, John Paul II asserted that “Man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ.”
Throughout the homily, Pope John Paull II presented Poland not as a vassal of Moscow, but as an independent people united in a struggle against oppression. In the famous final words of those remarks, he called on the Holy Spirit to “descend and renew the face of the earth. This earth.”
Those words continue to ring true decades later, and remind us of the power of faith in inspiring both personal and political renewal. As Pope John Paul II recognized, it is only the truth which can prevail over darkness, and courage modeled in the likeness of Christ which can root out and destroy evil.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.