The Election and Legacy of Pope John Paul II

This week (Oct. 16) in 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected by his fellow cardinals as the youngest pope in 132 years, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and — being a native of Poland — the first Slavic pope in history.   He took the name John Paul II, and then he took it upon himself to bring down the Soviet empire — an empire that had controlled Eastern Europe, including his native Poland, for more than 30 years.

In June of 1979, nine months after his election, he took his first significant step toward that goal by making an official visit to his Polish homeland, and when he disembarked from his plane at Warsaw’s airport and promptly kissed the ground, his countrymen burst with joy, pride and religious fervor.  Hundreds of thousands of Poles greeted his visit to Warsaw, shouting, “We want God!  We want God!”   And as he traveled the country the crowds swelled, culminating in the city of Krakow where he addressed nearly 3 million Poles.

His message to his audiences was simple.  “Be not afraid,” he told them, because “faith,” “hope” and “love” will help them overcome any obstacle or enemy, and he reminded his countrymen that religious freedom was their fundamental right, despite what the Soviet-puppet government that ruled them might say.

He also reminded his countrymen, and all the captive peoples of Eastern Europe, how disparate were their personal belief systems — their values, ethics, dreams and religious faith — from the illegitimate and stultifying political systems they lived under.  He was convinced that once those disparities were clearly understood, these political systems would quickly crumble.

His audiences got the message, starting — as he undoubtedly had hoped — with his fellow Poles.  A year after the Pope’s visit, Lech Walesa, an unemployed electrician from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, and a man who had once led an illegal strike against that shipyard, stood outside its gates, a picture of Pope John Paul II beside him, to announce the formation of the first-ever independent trade union in a Soviet-controlled country — the trade union Solidarnosc, or “Solidarity.”  “We have the right to strike!” Walesa announced to thunderous cheers.

It was the beginning of the end, as the then head of the KGB — and later Soviet General Secretary — Yuri Andropov surely realized.  Two years earlier, upon hearing that Wojtyla was elected pope, he had reprimanded his KGB bureau chief in Warsaw, demanding of him, “How could you possibly allow the election of a citizen of a socialist country as Pope?!”

That Andropov believed the KGB had any control over such a decision speaks volumes about how unnaturally illegitimate, out of touch — and ultimately doomed — the political system he represented really was.