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Thirty years of Poland

Remembering my first visit to Poland, which took place three decades ago this month.

Main Market Square in Krakow, Poland. (Jacek Dylag | Unsplash.com)

It was a two-week whirlwind that changed my life forever, that first visit of mine to Poland in June 1991. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of something H.L. Mencken wrote of a similarly transformative experience: “It was brain-fagging and back-breaking, but it was grand beyond compare – an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings.” My first weeks in Poland were all of that, and more. For what I learned in dozens of conversations during that fortnight became the crux of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism; the publication of that book (the first to argue that John Paul II and the Church had played pivotal roles in the collapse of European communism) led to my first serious conversation with the Polish pope; our relationship ripened over the next few years to the point where, in 1995, I rather boldly suggested to John Paul that I write his biography; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the past three decades, I’ve spent about three years, all told, in Poland, much of it in Cracow, a city I’ve come to regard as virtually another home. On this anniversary, however, my mind turns to some extraordinary people I first met in June 1991. Many are no longer with us but I cherish the memory of them, for their contributions to my education in matters Polish was incalculable.

I think of the former Solidarity activists, many of them political prisoners under martial law, who were then members of the Polish government, influential journalists, or academics finally able to teach as they saw fit in a free society.

I remember Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, a man of great natural dignity, shrewdly chosen by John Paul II as his successor in the See of Cracow. Macharski, for his part, had the good sense not to try to be Karol Wojtyła 2.0 but to be himself – which was more than enough, for he showed himself full of grit and courage when Poland suffered under martial law in the 1980s. It was Macharski who told me of the tradition that the archbishop of Cracow is the Defensor Civitatis, the last line of defense of the people and their rights. Like his predecessor, Franciszek Macharski lived that episcopal role magnificently, as had the wartime archbishop both he and Karol Wojtyła revered, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha.

I think of Jerzy Turowicz, a charming, elfin septuagenarian who for decades ran the only reliable newspaper in Poland, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), with the protection of the Archdiocese of Cracow. Its editorial staff included brilliant men and women who could not get the academic and professional positions for which they were qualified because they were serious Catholics. And in its pages, a future pope cut his literary teeth as a poet and essayist.

I remember Father Jozef Tischner, a bluff, hearty son of the Polish highlands, a tremendous joke-teller, and a world-class philosopher. His brilliant sermon on September 6, 1981 at the first Solidarity Congress – a meditation on work and the Eucharist – should be in the Liturgy of the Hours as the second selection of the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.

I remember visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time and praying outside the starvation cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe had given his life for a fellow-prisoner – and finding it, like the 12th station of the cross in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the easiest places in the world to pray.

I remember a lengthy Sunday afternoon talk with Father Kazimierz Jancarz, who looked like an NFL linebacker, mocked himself as “just a proletarian,” and then explained to me how his parish church in the industrial town of Nowa Huta had been a center of underground resistance activities during and after martial law – a place where people came to speak freely about a future they could only imagine, but for which they wanted to be educated and prepared.

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of my colleague and friend Rodger Potocki, who was the best of companions, a knowledgeable guide, and the man who made me read aloud all the road signs we passed, so that I could at least pronounce Polish (more-or-less) correctly.

Three decades of work and conversation in Poland have shaped me in ways I would not have thought possible 30 years ago. For that, I am deeply grateful to a nation that might yet become a model for 21st-century democracy, if it took the social doctrine of its greatest son seriously.


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About George Weigel 341 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 books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

7 Comments

  1. Poland is heading into a secular direction as news of misconduct by Polish clergy come to light. Warm feelings about Pope John Paul II don’t matter to a generation who grew up with no memories of him.

    • According to my contact, a Polish journalist who worked at the Vatican during JPII’s pontificate, it’s more that Poland is reverting to the secular socialism that’s been its bane since the early 19th century, and Russian influence. Of course, he’s going to blame the Russians no matter what, but he could still be right.

  2. Hopefully this comment isn’t too far afield from G Weigel’s interesting article. During that time frame there’s a significant turn of events that occurred in two distant places, Poland and Latin America. To begin, if ever there was justification of the hotbutton term White Supremacist it existed in most of Latin America, the lighter complexion more European politically and economically dominating the darker more indigenous peoples. Leo XIII sought to address this inequality in Rerum Novarum. The notion of “an option for the poor” or special consideration for lower classes began to become more prominent. A Peruvian priest Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez initiated a movement based on the Gospels that eventually became radicalized with Marxist concepts of social class antagonism. Then Prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the purpose of his instruction is to alert religious figures and the faithful of “the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought” (Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology Of Liberation CDF 2010 in Brown Univ Library). A similar movement began in Poland that initially met with strong resistance from the Marxist State. Solidarity led by Lech Walesa turned to violent demonstration and seemed deemed for failure. Pope John Paul II intervened during trips to Poland convincing Walesa to resist by peaceful means, which ended with the successful Gdansk agreement in which the Communist Govt recognized the legitimacy of the Solidarity workers union, the first of its kind in the Eastern Bloc nations. Then Jorge Bergoglio SJ superior general refused to intervene for a number of his Liberation activist Jesuit wards arrested and tortured by Argentine authorities. Bergoglio is said by biographer Austen Ivereigh in The Great Reformer to have deeply regretted his conservative distancing from the activists, a transitional event toward liberalism. We have then the anomaly of conservative turned liberal Pope Francis and conservative turned activist [of sorts in promoting Solidarity] Pope John Paul II. The marked difference is that John Paul remained doctrinally conservative though liberal in outreach, Francis a duality leaning more toward a contentious liberalism. Is there a conciliation of the two approaches? Perhaps with a new pontiff in the genre of Benedict XVI.

    • Fr. Morello suggests possible “conciliation” between John Paul II and Francis by “…. a new pontiff in the genre of Benedict XVI.” Long before even becoming pope, Benedict already foresaw a condensed Church still leavening the world (rather than the other way around), that is, a Church:

      “…less identified with the great societies, more a minority Church; she will live in small, vital circles of really convinced believers who live the faith . . . the salt of the earth. In this upheaval, constancy—keeping what is essential to man from being destroyed—is once again more important, and the powers of preservation that can sustain him in his humanity are even more necessary” (Salt of the Earth, 1997).

      When memories like Weigel’s are now so often gone the wind, the one memory that holds, even more than any tribal or national narratives, or any invertebrate accommodation, is the words of Christ: “do this in memory of me.” The USCCB has the opportunity–next week–to decide to sustain this transcendent/ever new and historical (both) memory, by deciding to reaffirm with clarity and wisdom the meaning of Eucharistic coherence.

      Will the successors of the apostles, with the mind of steadfast “constancy,” remain fully apostolic about our sacramental remember-ship in the redeeming Mystical Body of Christ?

  3. You vastly underestimate the will and character of the Polish people. Few nations can go through what they did in the 20th century alone and live to shout “We Want God!” John Paul II only affirmed what was in their hearts already. He saw the dangers of national prosperity even then. Only a George Soros could threaten them again like Nazism or Communism.

    Weigel’s massive biography should be required reading for Catholics. I only read it a few years ago myself, but it became a watershed moment. Even two pages of it were enough for any man’s lifetime yet Karol Wojtyla’s life was unbelievable. So I will forever thank Weigel for that effort. And I know Saint John Paul II will never abandon Poland. I wish only the language was a bit easier to learn . . .

  4. perhaps the remnant Church of Poland will be the yeast of the rest of the remnant Christians and Catholics of the increasingly gender and identity confused secular ‘woke’ world, which confuses dogmatic truth as ‘authoritarianism’all the while blind to their own totalitarian movements.
    The Polish Church must resist especially the morally bankrupt pronunciamentos of the European Council with respect to Polish laws regarding abortion and same-sex marriages, both considered as ‘rights’ by the rest of Europe but evil in Poland. Something will have to give, but it won’t be the faithful remnant of Poland.

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