The Pope Who Helped Bring Down Communism
Reason‘s December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.
In 1979, less than a year after ascending to the Catholic Church’s highest office, Pope John Paul II returned to his home country, then under communist rule. He disembarked at the airport, knelt, and kissed the Polish ground. That moment was arguably the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
In an officially atheist country, millions of people—more than a third of the population of Poland—showed up to see the first ever Slavic pope during his nine-day trip. “John Paul was walking among vast, enthusiastic crowds,” writes John O’Sullivan in his 2006 book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. “The pope proclaimed not only religious but also patriotic and political hope.”
While celebrating Mass at Warsaw’s Victory Square, John Paul drew the crowd’s attention to the nearby tomb of the unknown soldier. “In how many places has he cried with his death,” he said, “that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!” It was an astonishing political rebuke to the Soviets, who following World War II had installed communist governments across Eastern Europe that were “independent” in name only.
A few minutes earlier, in a rebuke of a different kind, John Paul had declared that “at any longitude or latitude of geography, the exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.” In response, the crowd had begun to sing, “We want God….We want God.”
On the other side of the world, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was gripped by these events. “I have had a feeling,” he later wrote, “particularly in the pope’s visit to Poland, that religion may turn out to be the Soviets’ Achilles’ heel.”
The following year, a trade union called Solidarity burst into being in the city of Gdańsk. It would soon span the country, representing millions of Poles from every industrial sector and becoming the locus of the nation’s anti-communist resistance. Under a banner frequently accompanied by John Paul’s face, members battled for the right to organize, liberalize, and democratize.
Within a decade, despite a brutal crackdown, they succeeded. And the rest of the Soviet bloc hastily did the same.
As the labor organizer and future Polish president Lech Wałęsa put it, John Paul’s pilgrimage “awakened in us, the Poles, the hope for change….I have no doubt that without the pope’s words, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible.”
‘To Praise the Mother of God and To Spite Those Bastards’
Remember that the Soviets had been determined to replace religion—the “opium of the masses”—with their own “scientific atheism.”
In 1919, writes Paul Kengor in his 2017 book A Pope and a President, “Lenin issued a stern order: to kill anyone who dared to observe Christmas.” The Soviet leader demanded that “the entire Cheka must be on alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of [the religious holiday] are shot.”
In the Soviet Union, thousands of churches and monasteries were destroyed, their bells melted down and recast into more “useful” things. Priests and bishops who did not cooperate with the regime were imprisoned or disappeared. “The Bolsheviks forbade religious instruction to anyone under eighteen years of age,” Kengor writes, “and children were encouraged to turn in parents who taught anything about God.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, would eventually acknowledge that the USSR had engaged in a “war on religion.”
These efforts were perhaps least successful in Poland, a majority Catholic country where the regime couldn’t seem to persuade people to abandon their religious attachments. In 1949, it created Nowa Huta, a “utopian” workers communi
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