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John Paul II and communism

The Polish Communist Party's miscalculation that then-priest Karol Wojtyla could be manipulated easily as a Catholic bishop, led to the downfall of communism. By Andrew Nagorski.
/ Source: Newsweek

In the early 1960s, Zenon Kliszko, the chief ideologist of the Polish Communist Party, vetoed seven candidates put forward by the Roman Catholic Church to be bishops.  The party ideologist reasoned that Karol Wojtyla, who had expressed little interest in mundane politics, could be manipulated easily. This has to rank as one of the most monumental miscalculations of the 20th century.

It was still the dark days of the Cold War, and the Polish government had the power to block such appointments. Kliszko warned he would continue vetoing candidates until he got the name he wanted.

Wojtyla, who, with the Polish Communist Party's approval, was installed as archbishop of Krakow in 1964 and was elected pope 14 years later, helped unleash the forces that brought about the fall of communism. He never overtly espoused any particular political agenda, but he lived his life according to the famous saying of the 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid: "A man is born on this planet to give testimony to truth." As a bishop and then as pope, Wojtyla kept urging his countrymen and everyone else to "live in truth." Nothing could be more subversive in a communist system based on lies. His credo proved to be a highly contagious idea picked up and expanded upon by dissidents like Adam Michnik in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. The result was the flourishing of an alternative culture, including a vigorous underground press and eventually the birth of the free trade union movement Solidarity.

In his support of human rights, Wojtyla always assigned top priority to the struggle for religious freedom. He repeatedly sought to help the "silent churches," the persecuted in places like the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and China. Sometimes, this meant bolstering underground churches, which secretly ordained priests; sometimes, it meant dispatching Polish priests, pretending to be ordinary travelers, to the Soviet Union, where they would celebrate masses in private houses. But most of the challenge was neither secretive nor conspiratorial. By talking about justice, morality and Europe's common "spiritual genealogy," Wojtyla undermined the communist system and the rationale for keeping the continent divided.

In 1979, when John Paul II was planning his first trip to his homeland after his election to the papacy, many communists had begun to realize how badly they had misread him. Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev warned the Polish leaders that he would "only cause trouble." A secret set of instructions sent out to teachers in Polish schools called the pope "our enemy." Later, when he barely survived the assassination attempt by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, there were charges -- never proven -- that the Kremlin had ordered the hit. Poles saw Wojtyla's survival as a miracle. But the bigger miracle was yet to come when, inspired by his bold example, they reclaimed control of their country -- and triggered a peaceful revolution that transformed Europe and the world.