Saint John Paul II's Clash With Cultural Colonialism

Upon arrival at what was then Warsaw’s Okęcie Airport, the first thing John Paul did was to greet his native land by kissing the tarmac, a practice he made customary during his many travels worldwide. He was cordially greeted by a high-level delegation of state and Church officials, and he then listened to welcoming speeches by Poland’s chief of state, Henryk Jabłoński, and the head (or primate) of the Catholic Church in Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. He followed with some brief remarks in which he thanked the government for “taking a benevolent position toward my visit” and laid out his goals. He stated, “My visit is dictated by strictly religious motives” and indicated that his intentions were to serve the cause of peace, dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation between nations, and social justice; to bring internal unity to Poles; and to further the development of good relations between state and Church.

The initial formalities taken care of, John Paul then went to meet, in succession, representatives of the Church, the state, and the nation. As his motorcade traversed the approximately eight miles from the airport to Warsaw’s Old Town, hundreds of thousands of people lined the route, many of them cheering, singing, and laying down flowers, with Polish and papal flags and welcome banners hanging from adjacent residences. First, he attended a gathering of clergy and faithful at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Warsaw’s Old Town, where he praised Cardinal Wyszyński as the “keystone” of the Church in Poland, asserted that the fact of the cathedral being built anew after its destruction during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 was a symbol of the resilience of the Church, and quoted one of his own favorite Polish poets, Cyprian Norwid, about Poles’ “great common duty” to the fatherland. John Paul also connected his pilgrimage with the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanisław, something the government was hoping he would downplay.

Next the pope went to Belvedere Palace, the seat of Poland’s president of the Council of State, for a high-level meeting with communist leaders, in particular Communist Party chief Edward Gierek. Gierek greeted the pope warmly and spoke favorably of recent international developments such as détente and arms limitation, though in an anti-NATO reference he mentioned the threat posed by the neutron bomb. He saluted Polish heroism and sacrifice during World War II and spoke of the “just borders, and lasting guarantee of independence, sovereignty, and security based on reliable allies,” especially the Soviet Union, that Poland enjoyed after the war. He went on to praise the many accomplishments of the past thirty-five years of communism in Poland, including fundamental social transformation, industrializa­tion, urbanization, and cultural development, and he expressed hope that the papal visit would contribute to Church-state cooperation, the unity of the Polish nation, and the success of the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, or PRL).

How would John Paul respond to these remarks combining cordial welcome with communist self-congratulation? Not with diplomatic formalities but rather a well-crafted, substantial speech that included a number of seemingly ambiguous formulations that could be regarded as affirming while in fact challenging Gierek and the regime. The pope thanked Gierek for his “very kind” words, as well as the authorities for supporting and helping to organize his visit.

Like Gierek, he recalled Poland’s tragic past, especially during World War II. He praised the reconstruction of the Royal Castle (Zamek) in Warsaw as a symbol of Poland’s statehood and sovereignty and noted that “the sovereignty of society, of the nation, of the Fatherland, is the raison d’être of the state.” He went on to stress that national independence was especially meaningful for Poles given how much they had suffered and sacrificed for it, including enduring a lengthy period without their own state from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century (the so-called era of the Partition).

He condemned “all forms of political, economic, and cultural colonialism” as being counter to international harmony, and he esteemed alliances based on mutual respect and co­operation for the welfare of all partners. In speaking out for peace and disarmament, the pope asserted that genuine peace can be built only on the foundation of respect for “the objective rights of the nation, such as the right to existence, to freedom, to sociopolitical subjectivity, and to the creation of their own culture and civilization.” John Paul also stressed the important and positive role the Catholic Church played and was continuing to play in the history of the Polish nation, and he mentioned the Church’s ongoing efforts in Poland to secure conditions for this activity.

The communists, publicly at least, preferred to see the pope’s words as affirming their self-image—Poland enjoying the “objective rights of nations” under their rule, which honored human rights and defended Polish sovereignty in an alliance system founded on mutual respect. But a more accurate reading, one that takes the Polish context into account, would see John Paul as reminding his audience that Poland was in fact part of a bloc based more on colonialism than mutual respect, with the objective rights of the nation, as well as the human rights of individuals, far from honored.

Thus, any talk of national sovereignty, rights of the nation, or human rights could be taken as an implicit challenge to the regime. Moreover, references to Poland’s past could also be problematic—not only the implicit reference to the Partitions (of which Russia was a central participant) but especially the remarks about World War II and its aftermath. While citing the suffering, sacrifices, and heroism of the wartime experience, John Paul added that “with bitterness we think about the disappointments that we were not spared.”

This remark could implicate the Soviet Union for a number of injustices that it inflicted upon Poles—its occupation of their country from 1939 to 1941 in cooperation with Nazi Germany; its mass killings at Katyń and elsewhere; its brutal and often dead­ly deportation of hundreds of thousands to exile deep in the Soviet Union; its reluctance to come to the assistance of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944—as well as implicate all the Allies for concluding the Yalta agreement that handed Poland over to the communists.

Although the pope made none of these linkages explicit, a listener aware of Poland’s history could certainly draw such intimations from the ref­erence to “bitter disappointments.” John Paul concluded his address by expressing his “gratitude and esteem” to Gierek for all his efforts toward “the general good of Poles and proper importance of Poland in international life,” along with his respect for each government official on whom weighed heavily “the responsibility . . . toward history and their own conscience.” Thus, what could superficially be taken as papal praise was in fact a challenge, admonishing Poland’s leaders that they would have to answer to their consciences and to history for their stewardship of his and their common native land.

If the meeting with Gierek was not enough drama for one day, the pope then went on to Warsaw’s enormous Victory Square, where he celebrated Mass late that afternoon for a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million. The focus of the event was on the altar erected on the square, the thirty-six-foot plywood cross standing behind it, and the pope himself, whose greet­ing of the crowd with outstretched arms became iconic. People wept openly. During the Mass, the pope gave one of his most significant homilies ever, one that communists found unsettling in a number of ways.

First, John Paul directly connected his pilgrimage to the anniversary of Saint Stanisław’s martyrdom, despite party efforts to obstruct such a link. Speaking on the eve of the feast of Pentecost, traditionally understood as the birthday of the Church, the pope tied that feast to the baptism of Poland’s ruler in 966, Prince Mieszko, and then to Stanisław himself, who as bishop was a successor to the apostles who had gathered at the first Pentecost and “who purchased his mission at the see of Kraków with his blood nine hundred years ago.”

Second, John Paul made reference to some historic events the regime would have preferred remain unmentioned. The pope noted the unfulfilled desire of Pope Paul VI to visit Poland, especially for the celebration of the one-thousandth anniversary of the “baptism of Poland” in 1966, a visit that did not materialize due to opposition from the communist authorities.

Moreover, John Paul got more specific with respect to the “bitter disappointments” he had vaguely mentioned at Belvedere, noting that Poles were abandoned by the Allied powers in their fight against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, clearly an indictment of the Soviet Union for its failure to assist Poles at that time. However, the most serious challenge to the regime at Victory Square was the pope’s elaboration of his view that Jesus Christ stands at the center of any understanding of human history, an approach that ran totally contrary to the communist interpretation of the past.

Reiterating one of his favorite teachings from the Second Vatican Council, John Paul affirmed that “it is impossible to understand the human person fully without Christ.” His dignity, his mission, his final destiny, who he in fact is, are all connected with Jesus Christ. Moreover, John Paul continued, because a nation is understood through the lives of each of its persons, it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, of what the Polish nation brought to the de­velopment of humanity, without Christ. This holds even for Poland’s nonbelievers, according to the pope. Rooted in Christ as an old oak is rooted in the soil, the nation was able to withstand the strong winds that history inflicted upon it. Jesus Christ, according to the pope, is an open book of teaching about humanity, the dignity and rights of humans, and also about the dignity and rights of nations.

John Paul’s high regard for the concept of nation also came through when he stat­ed that “there is no way to understand the human person other than in that community which is his nation.” He then made this connection between person, nation, and Jesus Christ concrete by alluding to the Gospel seed that dies before it brings forth new life. He thus linked Jesus Christ’s death on the cross with the many sacrifices made by Poles in past and present, as well as with the fruits that these sacrifices ultimately bore.

This fit extremely well with the overall tenor of John Paul’s pilgrimage and its repeated references to the lives, deaths, and fruits of such great figures as Saint Stanisław, Saint Wojciech, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe and visits to places connected with them. It also resonated well with the Victory Square venue, which was the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at which the pope had knelt earlier that evening with Cardinal Wyszyński. In so doing, as John Paul noted in his homily, he

Gave honor to each seed that, falling in the ground and dying in it, bears fruit. Whether this be the seed of the soldier’s blood spilled on the field of battle or the martyr’s sacrifice in camps and prisons. Whether this be the seed of heavy, daily work in the sweat of one’s brow in the fields, in workshops, in mines, in foundries and factories. Whether this be the seed of family love, which does not shrink before the gift of life of a new person and takes up the whole labor of upbringing. Whether this be the seed of creative work in the schools, institutes, libraries, in the workshops of national culture. Whether this be the seed of prayer and service to the sick, suffering, abandoned. Whether this be the seed of suffering itself in hospital beds, in clinics, in sanatoria, in homes; . . . everything that constitutes Poland.

John Paul thus linked Jesus Christ not only with Poland’s great mar­tyrs and heroic warriors fighting “for your freedom and ours” but also to the sacrifices made in the ordinary daily lives of countless contemporary Poles—workers, farmers, teachers, parents, and many others. In a dramatic culmination to his homily, and in a manner appropriate to the eve of Pentecost, John Paul concluded by calling down the Holy Spirit upon Poland, combining words from Scripture with references to his native land:

Let your Spirit come down!
Let your Spirit come down!
And renew the face of the earth.
Of this Land.

These words, a refrain recited in conjunction with Psalm 104, are a standard part of the Catholic liturgy for Pentecost Sunday. They had particular resonance among Poles, however, because in Polish, the word for “earth” and “land” is the same, zemia, so the pope was calling down the Holy Spirit to renew not only the face of the earth (ziemi) but also the face of Poland, that is, of “this Land” (ziemia).

John Paul’s homily sparked more than a dozen bursts of applause, notably at his reference to the abandonment of Poles during the War­saw Uprising, his talk of the centrality of Jesus Christ for understand­ing the human person and the nation, his litany of “everything that constitutes Poland,” and his calling down of the Holy Spirit. At times, the crowd sang and chanted “We want God.” John Paul also drew sustained applause when, referring to the sacrifices over the ages by the Polish “Unknown Soldier” near whose grave he stood, he asked whether “there can be a just Europe without an independent Poland on the map.” Poland’s communist authorities were extremely displeased with this speech, more so than with any other he would give that week in Poland. In their internal reports on the event, government and party analysts accused him of turning a religious celebration into a political rally.

They were annoyed by his allusions to Paul VI’s inability to visit Poland in 1966 and to the Warsaw Uprising. One report noted the divergence in tone and content between the Victory Square homily and John Paul’s more cordial and positive speeches at the airport and at Belvedere Palace, calling it “an attempt at creating a psychosis of struggle and threats” that evinced a crusading mental­ity. By introducing an “exclusivist Christology,” the Victory Square speech compromised the possibility of dialogue and cut against the strengthening of national unity that John Paul had claimed as one of his goals for the visit during his speech at the airport earlier that day.

John Paul was accused of understanding unity in his own sense as the domination of the “stereotype Pole-Catholic” and presenting a view of the history of the nation and its culture and development as integrally and exclusively connected with the Catholic Church. One analyst claimed that John Paul was denying to nonbelievers the right to understand the history of Poland and its culture and that he strongly tied the national to the religious, returning to the “old formula of equating Polishness with Catholicism.”

Another report quoted some of the pope’s “inappropriate” words from Victory Square: “Those without Christ cannot understand their own nation; they do not know how to draw the correct conclusions from history; they do not understand dignity and morality.” Although not a precise rendering of what the pope said, these comments were accurate enough and make it clear that John Paul had touched a nerve among Poland’s rulers.

Later that evening, John Paul met with representatives of War­saw’s “creative intelligentsia” at Cardinal Wyszyński’s residence and, according to a police report, told his audience that “everything that lies on my heart I said at Victory Square. We said it together—me and you; the people of Warsaw said it. What I didn’t say, the people said, not with spoken words, because you know . . .” Then he added, “Perhaps I said a little too much, or said it too sharply, but one must stand up for what one believes.”

If accurate, these papal comments show John Paul as acknowledging those very elements of his style that so troubled the regime and that underscored the dangers inherent in inviting him to his native land, where such opportunities would present themselves. The next day brought another such opportunity, as the pope once more raised communist hackles with an address they regarded as provocative.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The above is an excerpt adapted from The Pope in Poland: The Pilgrimages of John Paul II, 1979-1991 by James Ramon Felak, © 2020. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Featured Image: Lech Zielaskowski, John Paul II Meets with Polish Communist Leaders (Edward Gierek on the left) on 6/2/1979; Source: Polish Digital Archives, PD. 


James Felak

James Felak is Newman Center Term Professor in Catholic Christianity at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Pope in Poland and After Hitler, Before Stalin.

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