A fuse lit in Poland helps end Soviet rule
GDANSK, Poland -- In June 1979, the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe seemed as tight as ever. But the windows of grim, Stalin-era apartment blocks in the Polish capital were decorated with jubilant shrines to welcome Pope John Paul II, who was making a pilgrimage to his homeland in the first year of his papacy.
More than 3 million Poles the largest gathering in the nation's history were descending on Warsaw to be in the presence of their countryman, Karol Wojtyla, who was born in Wadowice, elevated to archbishop in Krakow, and elected Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.
Edward Gierek, the leader of Poland's Communist Party, warily eyed the event from a hotel window overlooking the square. As voices rose from the street, it was clear that Poland's Catholic heritage was about to surface after decades of suppression under communism.
Fourteen months later a strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk gave birth to the Solidarity trade union. It was a movement for workers' rights, but it had taken on a Catholic iconography. The barricades were decorated with pictures of John Paul II, wooden crosses, and images of the Black Madonna, a revered Polish icon. The pope and his message of human dignity had emboldened millions of Poles to express a yearning for freedom.
Today key players in the fall of communism, Vatican historians, and political analysts from the secular left widely agree that the pope set in motion a non-violent revolution of conscience, a call to faith, that played a pivotal role in the collapse of Soviet Communism across Eastern Europe.
It was one of John Paul II's defining contributions to the 20th century.
As George Weigel, the Catholic theologian and author of ''Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II,'' wrote, ''The fuse that John Paul II lit in Poland in June 1979 burned slowly but steadily.''
Adam Michnik, an atheist of Jewish descent who spent years in communist prisons for his role as a Solidarity leader, said the pope's message appealed even to unbelievers because of its emphasis on human dignity.
''I do not believe there are singular causes in history,'' Michnik said. ''If you ask who overthrew communism in Washington, the answer is Reagan. If you ask in Moscow, it was Gorbachev. If you ask in Afghanistan, it was the mujahadeen. And if you ask in Rome, it was the pope. But what is true is that it would not have happened without the pope.''
Stalin once derisively asked of the pope, ''How many divisions does he have?'' Michnik, now an editor of a leading Polish newspaper, observed that ''John Paul II's 'divisions' were his words, his faith, and his cleverness. He told the world that God gave so much dignity to human beings that they should never kneel before the Soviet Union, and so that message brought people into the movement and allowed us all to move forward.''
After the pope's speech in Warsaw, he began a highly emotional, nine-day odyssey through his native country and its history, from the ''Bright Mountain'' shrine of the icon of the Black Madonna in Czestochowka to the black hole of history in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz to the simple headstones that marked his parents' grave. The pilgrimage ended on June 10 in his beloved Krakow, where he had once served as archbishop. One million people gathered there to hear his sermon, which was also the first religious ceremony ever carried over Poland's state-controlled television.
''You must be strong, dear brothers and sisters. ... You must be strong with the strength of faith. ... When we are strong with the spirit of God, we are also strong with faith in man. ... There is therefore no need to fear,'' he told the vast crowd.
After igniting a movement in his first visit as pope, John Paul II remained persistent, doing everything from writing tough correspondence to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to offering public homilies that prayed for Solidarity to serve the ''great cause'' of freedom and exhorting Poles to ''let their work serve human dignity, let it elevate man, let it elevate families, let it elevate the whole people.''
The pope kept up the pressure seeking out an ally in President Reagan, who shared, for very different reasons, the pope's fervor for toppling the Soviet empire and continued to do so even as Poland languished under martial law in the early 1980s.
On a return visit to Poland in 1983, he insisted on a meeting with Lech Walesa, one of the founders of the then-banned Solidarity union.
And so in June, as the pontiff waited in a mountain villa, a military helicopter touched down, and Walesa, transported from virtual house arrest under heavy police escort, was permitted to visit with the Holy Father.
Walesa had achieved worldwide fame in 1980 when he climbed onto a forklift at Gdansk's shipyard and gave a stirring speech assailing Poland's pro-Soviet regime, a move that set off a series of nationwide strikes.
''The very fact that the meeting took place was significant,'' Walesa said in an October 2002 interview with the Globe in his downtown Gdansk office. He would not reveal the details of his historic meeting with the pope, which took place amid tight secrecy in Dolina Chocholowska, in Poland's Tatra Mountains.
But Walesa said, ''If I hadn't had my meeting with the pope, everyone would have thought that the Holy Father didn't take an interest in Solidarity.''
It was that kind of active ''interest'' on the part of John Paul II that provided momentum to the movement and created repercussions that would be felt across the Soviet bloc, from Prague to Vladivostok.
Vaclav Havel, the playwright who would lead the Velvet Revolution in Prague and eventually become Czech president, said: ''When I heard about the election of Pope John Paul II, we danced, drank, and were overjoyed. And I am sure our Polish friends drank three times as much as we did.''
In an interview with the Globe in September 2002, Havel explained his understanding of the role the pope played in the collapse of communism and ultimately the fall of the Soviet Union.
''It is certain that the election of the pope had an influence on opposition movements, and that Solidarity influenced the approach in other countries,'' he said.
But Havel added that the pope's role was just one of many factors.
''There were thousands of different developments that contributed to whether the regimes collapsed sooner or later,'' Havel said.
One of the unique roles the pontiff played in Poland was making sure the struggle was nonviolent, fearing that it could descend into a civil war. From the moment the Soviet system was imposed on them in the aftermath of World War II, the Poles had resisted communism, often violently.
''We never agreed with the system and fought it from the beginning,'' Wale-sa said. ''In the '60s and '70s, there was fighting on the streets. In the 1980s, we improved our methods of opposition.''
Much of the credit for the improvement, Walesa and other Solidarity veterans said, belonged to the pontiff's teaching on the nonviolent struggle in the face of tyranny and Jesus' message of forgiveness.
''The nation wanted to fight to change things, and the Holy Father accelerated this process,'' Walesa said. ''But he made sure the fight was a peaceful one. The end could have been bloody, but thanks to the Holy Father, it wasn't.''