Pope John Paul II

No one played a larger role in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe than Karol Wojtyla of Krakow. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Wojtyla had attended an underground Catholic seminary by dodging military patrols and taking secret classes in convents, churches, and homes. At length he graduated, donned clerical robes, and traveled to a small Polish village to serve as priest. Communists, meanwhile, were replacing Nazis as the oppressors of Eastern Europe; but with intrepidity, Wojtyla performed baptisms, heard confessions, offered Mass, foiled the secret police, and thwarted authorities.

The years passed, and by 1978, the village priest had advanced to become the first non-Italian pope in 456 years—John Paul II. On one of his first outings, the new pope heard someone in the crowd shout, “Don’t forget the Church of Silence!” (that is, the church under Communism). John Paul replied, “It’s not a Church of Silence anymore, because it speaks with my voice.”

John Paul soon returned in triumph to Warsaw where his plane landed over the protests of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Oceans of faces met him everywhere, weeping, praying, shouting. Communist leaders in Russia and Poland trembled as they listened to his words: “Dearest brothers and sisters! You must be strong with the strength that flows from faith! There is no need to be afraid. The frontiers must be opened.”

Within a year, spontaneous strikes occurred throughout Poland; and in Gdansk, Lech Walesa stood atop an excavator and announced a strike in the shipyards. Back at the Vatican, John Paul watched, prayed, and spoke to a group of Polish pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. “All of us here in Rome are united with our compatriots in Poland,” he said, signaling his blessings on the strikers. Within a week the Communists made historic concessions, and on August 31, 1980 the Gdansk Accords were signed, permitting the first independent union in Eastern Europe. There was no mistaking the role of the Polish pope, for Lech Walesa signed the papers using a brightly colored Vatican pen featuring a picture of John Paul II.

The Iron Curtain was crumbling.

I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; Share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; Don’t turn away your relatives. (Isaiah 58:6,7)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). August 31.

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