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Extraordinary coincidence, contemporary lesson

John Paul’s great Victory Square homily took place precisely where a simulacrum of piety had been built to underscore the religious subjugation of a people and their alleged “unorthodoxy.”

St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. (CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal)

Forty years after Pope John Paul II bent the course of the 20th century in a more humane direction during his first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in June 1979, new information continues to emerge about what happened behind the scenes, shedding further light on those epic events. The latest surprise involves a hitherto unremarked (and evidently impromptu) meeting of the Polish episcopate with the Polish pope in the middle of what’s become known as the “Nine Days.” Polish scholars recently discovered and published a transcript of that encounter, and kindly shared a translation with me while I was teaching in Cracow last month.

A bit of background helps set the scene for a powerful reminder that what may seem mere coincidence or randomness can, in fact, be providential — and instructive for the present.

Warsaw, Poland’s political capital from 1596 until the Third Polish Partition in 1795 erased “Poland” from the map of Europe, was absorbed into the Russian Empire after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Russian authorities immediately began an intense and often brutal program of Russification, which included banning the use of the Polish language in public administration and the courts. One physical expression of this determination to eradicate Polishness in Warsaw was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in city center on Saxon Square between 1894 and 1912.

Speaking at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the Russian czar had told Poles to abandon all hope of recovering their independence, and the new Russian Orthodox mega-church — with a bell tower designed to be the highest point in the city — was meant to underscore this brutal diktat. At the cathedral’s dedication in 1912, the local Russian Orthodox archbishop said that “The creators of this cathedral had nothing hostile in their thoughts towards the unorthodoxy that surrounds us: coercion is not in the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Church.” This was, of course, poppycock. The Nevsky Cathedral was nothing but a hostile politico-nationalistic act; the Russian Orthodox Church had long been an instrument of Russian state power; and, as Archbishop Nicholas himself admitted (however clumsily), the cathedral was intended to juxtapose Russian Orthodoxy to the “unorthodoxy” of  recalcitrant Poles who clung to their heretical Catholicism.

In the aftermath of Poland regaining its independence in 1918, the Nevsky Cathedral was demolished, to restore a great public space while removing an affront to Polish sensibilities. After Hitler destroyed Warsaw in 1944, Saxon Square was recreated in the rebuilt capital, although Poland’s communist overseers renamed it “Victory Square.” And it was there, on June 2, 1979, that John Paul II celebrated Mass before hundreds of thousands of Poles and famously called on the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth….of this land.” It was an electric rhetorical moment with consequences as great as Winston Churchill’s 1940 declaration, “…we shall never surrender!” And its providential character was identified in poignant remarks by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the heroic Primate of Poland, when John Paul met with the Polish bishops on June 5, 1979.

“I was raised in Warsaw schools,” the Primate recalled. “I know Warsaw from before World War I….In the exact spot where the Holy Father stood was the apse of a huge czarist church, placed there on orders of the czar, to serve as the ultimate defamation of Poland and the [Catholic] Church… So the Holy Mass [in Victory Square] was a huge experience for me, a huge shock, because I was sitting in the very same spot where once had stood that czarist church and I was looking at the Pope celebrating the Holy Mass where the…main ceremonies of the czarist power were once celebrated; and everything [in my memory] disappeared [because] the Pope was celebrating a Mass in that exact spot…”

Like many others, I’ve been thrilled by that epic moment as captured in films and documentaries, but I had missed the extraordinary, providential coincidence: John Paul’s great Victory Square homily took place precisely where a simulacrum of piety had been built to underscore the religious subjugation of a people and their alleged “unorthodoxy.” God is not without a sense of ironic humor, it seems (although this particular exercise in the divine irony may not be well-appreciated in Vatican circles where the memory of Russian Orthodoxy’s historic aggressiveness toward “unorthodox” Catholicism seems to have been erased).

Catholics may, and indeed must, forgive. But we should also remember. Because forgetfulness can lead to something worse: like a dangerous falsification of reality.


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About George Weigel 297 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

9 Comments

  1. What a great concluding line (!): “Catholics may, and indeed must, forgive. But we should also remember. Because forgetfulness can lead to something worse: like a dangerous falsification of reality.” Forgive, but remember…

    I recall a graduate-school reading, at a secular university, of a very typical rural village (Long Bow) in northern China during the post-World War II Communist takeover. Under the imposed policy of “forgetfulness,” brainwashed individuals would finally break and yield to the “falsification” of even their personal reality.

    Village-level re-education and show trials, day and night loudspeakers (today’s media? and even today’s kindergarten children’s storybooks, e.g., Heather has Two Mommies?), followed by denunciation of one’s history, one’s family and friends and even one’s self. Victims by the millions “crossed over” with no turning back, broken by “fanshen” (Fanshen, the name of the book by a visiting American Marxist, William H. Hinton, 1966).

    Today and here where amnesia is still less total, our textbooks routinely demonize the Western tradition, or traditional marriage (“homophobic” said Justice Kennedy), or the family (“stereotypical households” said Justice Blackman), or especially the Church. Step by step: Columbus is painted over while cathedrals are either repainted with Cardinal Paglia’s homoerotic mural (!) or sold as mosques; historic statues and the Ten Commandments are removed from courthouse lawns while Stonewall is made into a national park; and Supreme Court fatwas are propped up as “settled law” (Roe v Wade, then Obergefell v Hodges)—again with no turning back…

    Chinese water torture cross-dressed as irreversible modernity.

  2. In your new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. Are the pre-Vatican and other conservative Catholics non affiliated to the two groups you describe considered and how?

  3. An edifice of a far more nefarious character than the czarist cathedral is being deftly fabricated in “the square” today. Taking heart from what transpired forty years ago, let us see to it that the contradiction of that great event presently sitting proudly in Rome hears resoundingly “Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever!”

  4. I am in Poland again. The Catholic faith here is no different to England with an aging population and churches run by women who push out the men. There is certainly more piety and more use of the confessional here, but in 30 years there will be the same problems as England. I am tired of this rhetoric concerning John Paul II. He removed communism from Eastern Europe, but the spreading errors of Russia are killing the West by Neo-marxism. These are the facts.

    I am also tired of erroneous statements concerning John Paul II and what a wonderful philosopher. The critique of all conciliar theology/philosophy is on its way and it is going to not end well for any post-Vatican II Pope. John Paul II, made one mistake which ultimately will undermine his legacy for future generations. Phenomenology is the great error and con job of the conciliar Church. Anything that contradicts the Aristotlan, Augustinian, and Aquinas position of the Church is going to be consigned to history. This was John Paul II’s disastrous mistake. This is all going to be exposed through the traditional movement attatched to the Latin Mass. Facts are facts and whilst we all love John Paul II, the Francis/St. Fallen axis is already in the process of consigning JPII to history anyway. George, you should ditch conservatism and come over to tradition. We have a few tricks up our sleeves and the traditionalist can still save JPII’s legacy, but not in any way you could imagine…

  5. An historical note regarding Russian Orthodox hostility to Catholicism. The Catholic Teutonic Knights [frequently allied with Polish combatants] invaded and conquered large swaths of Russia during the 13th Century and persecuted the Orthodox as heretics. Until suffering irreparable loses in the Battle of the Ice. Catholic Poland invaded Russia and occupied Moscow 17th Century during the Muscovite War. Eventually defeated and retreated back to Poland. So the hostility of Russian Orthodoxy to Catholicism is long standing Russian Orthodoxy a national Russian Church closely identified with Russia’s identity. Atheist Stalin permitted resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy during the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin well aware of the importance of Russian cohesion and their Church made personal effort to revive Orthodox practice rebuilding many former religious sites. Vladimir Putin is far more amenable to Catholicism than the Czarist Russia noted by Weigel though nevertheless wary of Catholic inroads in the Ukraine and Russia. As much as Putin is maligned by Democrats and impugned by Neocon hawks there is real possibility of gaining a vital strategic ally that at least has a Christian identity. Pres Trump’s efforts much maligned by some to appear directed toward that end. John Paul II largely responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse [Reagan’s economic pressure rebuilding of our military the catalyst] achieved success by pacifying Solidarity and Christian humanist principles that had intellectual purchase with the exceptionally cosmopolitan humanistic Gorbachev. The bottom line is that G Weigel’s own hostility toward Russia and Russian Orthodoxy is outdated at best provincially myopic at worst.

    • “The bottom line is that G Weigel’s own hostility toward Russia and Russian Orthodoxy is outdated at best provincially myopic at worst.”

      Hmmm. That’s an interesting comment, because I’ve corresponded with Russian Orthodox (including priests and religious), and they echo what Weigel says. It’s a mess, to put it simply but fairly. And many in Ukraine can tell you how bad it can be.

      • Yes the Russian Orthodox Church is a mess still largely controlled by the State as during the Soviet Union. Russia refuses to fully admit Ukrainian sovereignty and is entangled in Church affairs there. I acknowledge your views. George Weigel’s perspective is not unreasonable, though limited. My affinity Carl is more with Poland [I met John Paul II twice offered Mass with him in his private chapel and pray to him as my inspiration of what a priest should be] and its heroic past the Catholic Church there as much perhaps more a national Church than the Russian Orthodox. And it was providential that Poland retained independence 1920 with the defeat of a much larger Red Army during the Battle of Warsaw, victory approx Aug 15 the Feast of the Assumption. What I allude to is the identity of the Russian people with the Orthodox Russian Church, which of itself whether controlled, politically entangled with Russian policy has a very different national history than the remainder of Orthodoxy. Russia has a deep spiritual character still evident in its liturgy, music, icons. There is a religious resurgence. My sense is we have the opportunity to benefit in that relationship in a world most unfortunately W Europe that is distancing from its religious heritage in Christ.

  6. A note of interest for history and movie buffs is the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein 1938 WW II prep film Battle of the Ice. Alexander Nevsky the hero was Prince of Novgorod Grand Prince of Kiev who first defeated an invading Swedish Army at the Neva 1240. Prince Nevsky next defeated the German Teutonic Knights and their allies at a frozen lake site adjacent to Novgorod. Nevsky then assumed the title of Grand Prince of Vladimir. A 16th century Metropolitan declared him a saint. Some historians consider those victories essential to the future viability of a Russian state. A year after the movie appeared the USSR and Nazi Germany signed a non aggression treaty that included a secret agreement for both nations to attack and destroy Poland. Betrayal continued at Yalta. At the 6th plenary session Yalta Pres Roosevelt brushed off the significance of Poland expressing disdain for Poles as quarrelsome while agreeing to give the Soviets free hand in Eastern Europe. Stalin agreed they were quarrelsome and answered, “But the Polish people are nonetheless gifted scientists, musicians, and great fighters”. In Churchill, Vol. 6, he [Churchill] quotes FDR as saying at Yalta’s first session, “Poland has been a source of trouble for over five hundred years. Troublemakers, that’s what these Poles are! Three times this nation was dismembered and partitioned by another Big Three Germany, Austria, Russia who in their own day were the overlords of Europe; see all the trouble they made? Moreover, after being partitioned, the Polish people never ceased fighting against the foreign rulers. “This animal is wicked; it defends itself when attacked.” Apparently the hand of God displayed Justice when as Weigel gives account Pope John Paul II offered Mass at the former site of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

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