John Paul II’s Field Guide in the Battle for Religious Freedom

Six points for dealing with infringements upon fundamental rights

While the government may be shut down, that doesn’t mean the fight for religious freedom has come to a halt.

In a recent review of several works by and about Blessed John Paul II, something new jumped off the page. Here was a man who knew how to deal with everyday infringement upon religious freedom, having spent most of his life actively straining against the likes of Hitler, Stalin and the Soviet machine.

The new demands of the Obama Administration, such as the HHS Mandate, have left many American Catholics unprepared, spiritually and otherwise, to tackle the thorny issue. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I have taken a few pages from John Paul’s playbook.

Here are six points John Paul II used in word and example to rally the faithful living behind the Iron Curtain.

1) Do Not Be Afraid

John Paul started his pontificate urging the world: “Do Not Be Afraid.” This phrase, a frequent line in Scripture, was a recurrent theme throughout his 26 years as pope.

Having lived through the darkest of days under the Nazi’s, the Polish pope understood what it was to be afraid. His life, however, was marked by a fearlessness because of his deep faith.

2) Learn the Enemies’ Tactics and Adapt

The communists, rather than making martyrs, employed other tactics to control the masses, including intimidation, arrests, violence and surveillance.

They were also masters of media manipulation. During John Paul’s first visit to Poland, the cameramen were told to only take tight shots of the pope to hide the swelling numbers from view. And any footage of the crowd was only to include clergy, nuns, the elderly and handicapped.

Rather than throwing his hands up in frustration with the enemies’ tactics, John Paul was able to find new ways to communicate or to confound the enemy by doing the unexpected. When he realized the archbishop’s residence was bugged, he would hold important meetings outside. When followed on the way to a secret meeting, his driver would stealthily drop him off at another waiting car without the being detected by those on his tail.

Moreover, the communists made every effort to keep people apart and drive a wedge through the most intimate of relationships. To combat this, Wojtyla encouraged married couples to renew their wedding vows, he created opportunities to for young people to congregate together in the countryside, and he never showed any outward sign other than absolute accord with the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski.

3) Be Mindful of Who You Are and Who God Is

Wojtyla noticed early on that the communist oppressors manipulated people by taking away their dignity, their self-respect, and their identity as willed and loved by God. Every effort was made to strip the culture of its Catholic identity.

Both as archbishop and pope, John Paul II made heroic efforts to proclaim the truth of Christ. When the communists built the “model town” of Nova Huta without a church, the Archbishop of Krakow spent 20 years in direct resistance to the state, coordinating countless volunteers and laborers to build that church.

4) Keep a Sense of Humor

One biographer tells the tale that when dealing with the Gestapo during World War II, Wojtyla would periodically don a disguise as a German soldier, complete with the German accent in perilous efforts to help the Jews. Trying to sew discord among the soldiers, Wojtyla and his friends also in disguise issued a directive to the German troops that all cats in Krakow be registered. While it was carried out with seriousness because of the deadly stakes, one can imagine the laughter as Wojtyla and his friends came up with the scheme.

Years later after becoming pope, at the end of his first tense visit to Poland, John Paul planted a kiss upon the cheek of Henryk Jablonski, the president of the Polish Council of State, much to the communist leader’s embarrassment on international television.

5) Be Vigilante

Being vigilant was recurring theme of John Paul repeated on his trips to Poland, especially to young people. The political “dance” the Poles lead by Lech Walesa of the Solidarity movement and inspired by the pontiff, suffered many setbacks and disappointments, among them the imposition of martial law and the violent murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko.

And yet, as Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz recounts in his book, A Life With Karol, part of the genius of Karol Wojtyla was that he never gave into pessimism. “He would always say, ‘Christ is in the Church.’ In other words, there would be calm after the storm. There would a springtime after the winter.”

6) Pray

This one seems obvious, but what is not so evident is the abundance of peace, insight and interior freedom that prayer gave to John Paul. We normally look to prayer to change the externals of our life, but the Polish pope also knew the power of prayer to change the internal. Like the sinking Peter who panicked when he saw a storm while walking on water, Christ reached out to grab him instead of calming the storm.

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About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor at the Catholic Women's online magazine Theology of Home. She is the author of several books including The Anti-Mary Exposed, Theology of Home, and . Theology of Home II: The Spiritual Art of Homemaking. Visit her online at