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Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/2/2005 5:25:09 PM ET 2005-04-02T22:25:09

The first time I saw the pope was on the first day of his first visit in Poland as pope in 1979, a few months after his election. More than a million people had gathered on a disused airfield outside Gniezno, the town where Polish Christianity originated. I was just 16, and for the first time in my life, I was participating in a public event in Poland into which I had not been coerced.

The police were nowhere in sight, yet perfect order reigned.  Jubilant, we sang religious songs until the pope's white helicopter descended from the sky. Karol Wojtyla was obviously delighted to be back in Poland. Even at the distance of 100 yards, he radiated good humor and strength. He told us: “Before I go away, I beg you: Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged.”  We weren't, and we did not disappoint him.  “We,” the people, saw for the first time that we were more numerous than “them,” the communists.  When we got home, television reports showed only old ladies and nuns at the pope's open-air masses.  That combination — awareness of our numbers and tangible proof of communist duplicity — helped to produce the Solidarity revolution the following year.

I saw the pope again twice: once through the intercession of a friendly priest, at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, and a second time on official business, while serving in the Polish government. The first time I was accompanied by my parents; the second time I was alone. Nevertheless, it seems to me now that the most impressive and moving encounter was that first one, when I met the pope along with a million other people. For this was the pope in his element: traveling abroad, saying Mass in an open field — and breaking down the resistance of an undemocratic regime.

A roaming pope
Indeed, in the years since I first saw the smiling figure in white ascending the field altar in Gniezno, the pope's travels and his political engagement became the hallmarks of his pontificate. Less than a lifespan after popes were carried about in sedan chairs and never ventured beyond the walls of the Vatican, John Paul II has visited his flock in Haiti and Fiji, Turkey and Estonia, the United States, Africa and Poland now several times. He has even been to Zagreb, in Croatia, during the Bosnian war; at the last minute he decided not to visit Sarajevo, but only because his presence would have put worshipers at risk.

Like any politician with a radical message, the most political pope in recent history has attracted enemies. His conservative views on abortion and contraception,  his opposition to the ordination of women, his condemnation of liberation theology and homosexuality are said to be anathema to the liberal spirit of the age. Many of his faults are said to lie in his "backward" Polish heritage,  in the "authoritarian" Poland that nurtured him. And yet, for the Polish bigot that he is supposed to be, John Paul II has shown a remarkable enthusiasm for hob-nobbing with rabbis, mullahs and fakirs. His Vatican is the first to recognize Israel. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue in Rome. Even his anticommunism must have been reasonably responsible for Pravda to comment in 1989 that he is "an objective judge of the reality of the contemporary world."

The Polish pope
In fact, calling him a Polish pope, in the sense of bringing a specifically Polish perspective into the papacy, is correct —  but not in the way that the critics imagine. The Poland in which Karol Wojtyla ascended the steps of his ecclesiastical career was indeed ruled by authoritarian, even totalitarian regimes, first Nazi Germany and then Soviet-inspired communism. He, however, was nurtured in opposition to them, which is why he made such frequent and passionate pleas for respecting human rights, and why he believed so deeply in the need to carry his mission around the world.

John Paul II's Polishness is also reflected more subtly, in his emotional sense of history. His passionate pronouncements on behalf of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, were, for example, very Polish. Having lived through September 1939, when Nazi and Soviet armies marched into Poland and the world did not lift a finger, he knows what it feels like to die in loneliness. Would any but a Slav pope send 10 cardinals to the celebrations of the millennium of Kievan Rus's Christianity in 1988?  Would any other have supported so steadfastly the underground church in Lithuania or the Uniate Catholics in Ukraine?  Would any pope but a pope from Krakow have visited Auschwitz?

His desire to visit Cuba is explained by the same sense of history. This is a pope who believes deeply that Catholicism is an antidote to authoritarianism: he believes that the church, by offering an alternative set of values, is a direct challenge to totalitarian regimes which claim to possess the whole truth. His trip to Cuba must also appeal to the pope's sense of justice and his sense of historical drama: this will probably be his final trip abroad, and what better place to go than to one of the last existing communist regimes?  The more dramatic and controversial his presence, the more he will deem the trip a success. He is, after all, a former playwright and an actor.

The pampered West
Whatever criticism he receives from the American press on his visit will not bother him In fact, the pope's Polish experience -- of rule by two godless ideologies, of war, genocide, poverty and revolution -- chimes in better with the experience of most of the world's Catholics who do not, after all, live in the pampered and degenerate West. It is his experience with the transitory nature of regimes, power and wealth in his native land, that reinforces his insistence on personal, rather than collective or state-directed, pursuit of goodness. His Polishness also strengthens the pope's solidarity (a word that crops up very often in his speeches) with the world's underdogs. Hence his condemnation of apartheid, his visit to the leper colony in the Ivory Coast, or his meal with the Vatican's tramps, or now, his visit to Cuba.

Who knows? Perhaps history will repeat itself this week: perhaps there is a Cuban Lech Walesa out there who will be inspired to lead strikes and protests of the sort that brought down the Polish communists. Perhaps for Cuba, as for Poland, this is the beginning of the end.

Radek Sikorski was Poland's deputy defense minister in the first government to be chosen entirely by democratic vote. He wrote this article for MSNBC.com in 1998, on the eve of John Paul II's second pilgrimage to Poland.

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