It was quickly clear that the story was not going to hold. Time had
passed. Some of Kwitny's characters were so old and sick, they simply did not
remember what they had said to the former Wall Street Journal
reporter. Younger people told us the same stories, but aimlessly, often without
the point Kwitny had given them in print. We heard many woolly memories of Wojtyla's
protective attitude toward endangered dissidents--but nothing so concrete as
Kwitny's account of Wojtyla inspiring the hunger strike.|
Then we began to find real, disturbing errors of fact. Kwitny identifies
Joanna Szczesna, a leading Polish intellectual and an important veteran of
the resistance, as Jewish. In truth, she's Catholic. She laughed when we showed
her the reference, but she might not have. Given the tortured and explosive
history of Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland--the abyss which painfully
separates the two worlds--Kwitny's mistake here was a significant error with
potential repercussions both personal and professional.
Szczesna was also baffled by Kwitny's claim that Wojtyla had "guided" the
St. Martin's strike. "We didn't know Wojtyla much then," she said. "He was in
Krakow, a world away from us in Warsaw. He was not one of the political
priests." But Kwitny insists that he was, backing his assertion with, among
other illustrations, a story of how Wojtyla worked hard to persuade Tadeusz
Mazowiecki to participate in the strike. Mazowiecki was a Prime Minister after
the fall of Communism and is still an official in the Polish government.
Tadeusz could not remember speaking with Wojtyla before taking his courageous
stand in the church. Mazowiecki was quite skeptical about Wojtyla having any
role whatsoever in that action.
Our darkest moment came in our final interview with Father Bardeicki,
Kwitny's source for Wojtyla's most important clandestine activities. We had
interviewed Father Bardeicki at length about the role of the Catholic Church
in Polish nationalism, history in the Polish imagination, and the Church's
fight against the Communists. This time we asked him outright about Wojtyla's
place in the resistance. Had he ever secretly ordained priests in
Czechoslovakia? "No, never," Father Bardeicki replied mildly. Had Wojtyla ever
sent Father Bardeicki to the Ukraine to gather intelligence on the Church
there? "No. I was only in the Ukraine before the war when it was part of
Poland. After the lines were redrawn, we were not allowed to go." Did Wojtyla
oversee a vast smuggling operation throughout Eastern Europe? "Smuggling
Bibles and literature happened," Father Bardeicki assured us. "But it was
Wyszynski's operation, Wojtyla was just a parish priest." Of such
anti-answers, cold war thrillers are not made.
Unfortunately, before we could raise our questions with Jonathan Kwitny,
he died of a brain tumor. Because of his sudden, untimely death, he never had
the chance to defend the book he'd spent a decade writing. Meanwhile, we were
back at ground zero with a critical question--not just about John Paul II's
biography, but also about the role of the individual hero in modern history.
Though the question has been endlessly debated, it is generally recognized that
it is almost impossible to have the same impact of a Columbus or a Martin
Luther in one of today's mass societies. When we spoke to Vaclav Havel, the
playwright and President of Czechoslovakia, he was cautious about singling out
any one person--Gorbachev, Reagan or John Paul II--as the prime mover in the
fall of Communism. Havel called the Pope's 1979 pilgrimage to Poland "a
miracle" and credited John Paul II's contribution during the trip with being
more important than anything the leaders of the U.S. or U.S.S.R. had done. But
Havel was also careful to place John Paul II in a historical narrative. In the
end, the Pope was only one leading character in the story of a vast grass roots
It is a story, we found, that is still being written. Efforts to resist
after the war were modest and poorly documented. During the Stalinist terror,
people involved in clandestine activities took care to cover their tracks.
Those who didn't were murdered. Most of the important memoirs are still to be
written. The Catholic records during the period when Wojtyla rose from priest
to Cardinal remain under lock and key, and Catholic officials are
understandably defensive about the new "political" Pope.
The idea of "God's politician" is anathema to the men for whom the Polish
Church is a bastion of spiritual power and truth. Its role in the Polish
resistance goes back through hundreds of years of humiliations and partitions.
We quickly found interviews shutting down when we pressed Poles for testimony
about Karol Wojtyla's "political trajectory." Gradually, we learned to ask
about his "activism" and all the ways he'd "championed human rights." Even
then, we often met reluctance among people who feared their quotes might
somehow be used to prove the Pope led a political and not a spiritual
Oddly enough, the surviving Communist record on Wojtyla is one of the best
measures we now have of his youthful activism. In 1958, early in Wojtyla's
rise, the Communists backed his nomination as auxiliary Archbishop of Krakow.
He was known for his intelligence, for being personable and open-minded, a
priest who would compromise in the interest of building churches and
seminaries. He was not considered radical. The Communists thought he would be
manageable malleable, even a poet. For the same reason, Wojtyla was Primate Wyszynski's
seventh choice for the job.
Once in office, he proved to be innovative, but as far as anyone could
tell, not threatening. Lucjan Motyka, who was a Communist leader in Krakow,
told us about an extraordinary encounter he had with the young bishop. Wojtyla
was upset when authorities requisitioned the diocesan seminary building for use
by thestate. He did what no other Catholic bishop had ever done. He went to
the Communist Party committee room to speak to Motyka in person. "Wojtyla was
not an ideologue. He learned to cross the street. He had great confidence in
himself as an actor." His confidence paid off. Motyka negotiated a compromise
which limited the state's use of the building to the fourth floor. The rest of
the building was left to the seminarians. Motyka was so stunned, he wrote up a
detailed report of their meeting and sent it to ten Central Committee members.
It was placed prominently in Wojtyla's file--proof that he was "their" man in
the Catholic Church.
Almost a decade later, when Rome promoted Karol Wojtyla to Cardinal, the
Communists had been moved to think of him more critically. In 1967, the UB
(Polish secret police) analyzed his strengths and weaknesses in a top-secret
document found in their files in the late 80's. "It can be said that Wojtyla
is one of the few intellectuals in the Polish Episcopate. He deftly
reconciles-- unlike Wyszynski--traditional popular religiosity with
intellectual Catholicism...he has not, so far, engaged in open anti-state
activity. It seems that politics are his weaker suit; he is
over-intellectualized...He lacks organizing and leadership qualities, and this
is his weakness in the rivalry with Wyszynski."
General Jaruzelski, former head of the Polish Communist Party, laughed
ruefully and shook his head at this evaluation during a long, revealing
afternoon we spent talking with him. He admitted that one of the great ironies
of the regime he served was how much they had underestimated Wojtyla. "My
Communist colleagues decided that the Bishops ahead of Karol Wojtyla on the
list of candidates were not good for the state, so they pushed Karol Wojtyla.
The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways."
Kwitny exaggerated Wojtyla's actual political involvement. He missed the
extent to which the revolution within Poland was always a spiritual one--
and that Wojtyla contributed more from the pulpit than from the underground.
The Polish Communists underestimated how much Wojtyla's involvement grew-- how,
as his consciousness was raised, he shaped his sermons as challenges to the
regime. Observers from both East and West failed to appreciate the compelling
nature of Wojtyla's leadership, possibly because Primate Wyszynski cast such a
huge shadow for so long.
These two men came from different generations and backgrounds.
Wyszynski was a sociologist; Wojtyla a philosopher. The Primate was popular
with the masses; the Bishop of Krakow appealed to youth and intellectuals.
Wyszynski and Wojtyla had grown up under different oppressions. During World
War II, Wyszynski resisted outwardly. As the chaplain for the outlawed Home
Army, he lived underground as a fugitive from the Gestapo. Wojtyla's resistance
was more inward. He fought first with the word in the Rhapsodic Theatre and
then with prayer and study in Sapieha's secret seminary.
The lean, wolf-faced Wyszynski had the tough negotiating skills to deal
with the Stalinists. He fought openly for the Catholic Church and was
imprisoned for his outspokenness. As Wojtyla came of age in the Church of the late 50's,
early 60's, Neal Ascherson told us that it was apparent that the Communist
threat was shifting from terror to the gray numbing of spirit. Wojtyla's
generation could see the end of brute force. They faced the lies that replaced
it by trying to find strategies for living in truth.
As a young priest, Wojtyla was not confrontational. He was always known as
a good listener. He was eclectic, ready to make alliances with outsiders to
the Church--leftists, the intelligentsia, even Jews. From early on, he
cultivated small groups and often had a transforming effect on the
participants. The young people who hiked and canoed with Wojtyla all during
the 50's experienced a freedom that was unheard of in other areas of Communist
society. Wojtyla encouraged arguments about politics, religion, even
relationships. People could let down their guards in the "zones of freedom"
that Wojtyla created around himself. They developed unusual bonds with each
other; literally, the 'solidarity' which made possible the later revolution and
became the name of the trade union that led it.
Wojtyla encouraged other small discussion groups, ones that met in church
basements, along with the "flying universities" whose classes met wherever
there were vacant pews. Bronislaw Sonik, a future leader of KOR (Committee for
the Defense of Workers) remembers hearing Wojtyla lecturing his friends in the
Dominican students' group: "The Church was the only place where you could meet
and feel free and independent. Wojtyla's reflections on how to be young and
faithful but also politically active in those dangerous times impressed all of
us. When our activities became much more illegal and the authorities started to
arrest our colleagues, we used to visit Wojtyla late at night in his palace. He
The transformation did not just run from Wojtyla to the students. Over
time, Wojtyla was changed as much as those whose lives he altered so
dramatically. For decades, for instance, he was the advisor to Tygodnik
Powszechny, a free-thinking Catholic weekly in which Wojtyla at first had
no real interest. But gradually, as one of the editors, Krystoff Kozlowski,
told us, Wojtyla changed. "He was afraid of politics...He would say, 'I don't
want to talk about politics.' But it was very difficult not to talk about
politics...Everything is political in a totalitarian state...After several
years, Wojtyla stopped protesting. He listened as we talked and argued, and he
would sort out the mail, and then in the 70's he started to talk. He said, in fact, that he realized you can't
live in Poland without politics."
Jerzy Wozniakowski, the eminent art critic and close friend of the Pope's,
also remembers Wojtyla's transformation. "He was a man who even hated to read
the papers, whom we had to persuade that it was important to know what was
going on. But once he started to pay attention he was the quickest study. I
never met anyone who learned so quickly."
The struggle to build the Nowa Huta church is one of the great clashes
between the Catholic Church and Communists in post-war Poland. Of all the
conflicts between the Church and the Communists involving Karol Wojtyla,
this story perfectly expresses his growth into political leadership. It is a small
gem of a story, multifaceted, twenty years in the making, combining all the
elements of Wojtyla's own political journey--both prosaic and dramatic, gradual
and surprising. Ultimately, this story is revealing of the man, the priest, the
emerging leader who understood the importance of tenacity and compromise, as
well as the great communicator who is exquisitely aware of symbolism and
Nowa Huta was a brand new town built by the Communists in the early 50's
outside of Krakow. The town was in Wojtyla's jurisdiction. It was meant to be
a workers' paradise, built on Communist principles, a visible rebuke to the
"decadent," spiritually besotted Krakow. The regime assumed that the
workers, of course, would be atheists, so the town would be built without a
church. But the people soon made it clear they did want one. Wojtyla
communicated their desire, and the regime opposed it.
The conflict became an intense symbol of the opposition between the
Catholic Church and the Communist state. It was a conflict between the workers'
world that was supposed to be beyond religion--and the actual workers singing
old Polish hymns that started with the words, "We want God." The Communist
Party reluctantly issued a permit in 1958 and then withdrew it in 1962.
Years went by as Karol Wojtyla joined other priests--especially,
Father Gorlaney--met with authorities,and patiently filed and refiled for building
permits. Crosses were put in the designated area and then pulled down at night
only to mysteriously reappear weeks later. Meanwhile, Bishop Wojtyla and other
priests gave sermons in the open field, winter and summer, under a burning sun,
in freezing rain and snow. Year after year, Bishop Wojtyla celebrated Christmas
Mass at the site where the church was supposed to be built. Thousands
peacefully lined up for communion, but tension was building. Violence did
actually erupt when the Communist authorities sent a bulldozer to tear down the cross. Lucjan
Motyka was roused out of his hospital bed to be jeered at by the demonstrators.
As he reminisced with us one morning about this humiliating moment, Motyka
clearly believed that it was Wojtyla's calming words that helped to avert an
ugly and potentially dangerous confrontation.
By this time, the Communists, local leaders, residents and Catholic Church
had dug in, their positions seemingly intractable. The Communists' compromise
to allow a church to be built outside of the town was rejected--until Karol
Wojtyla, the realist, the negotiator, broke the stalemate,persuading everyone
that the existence of the church transcended all other considerations. The time
to bend was now. In May 1977, a year before he became Pope, almost twenty years
after the first request for a permit, Karol Wojtyla consecrated the church at
Nowa Huta. What the worshippers were most proud of--and it was a symbol Karol
Wojtyla helped to make into a reality--is the gigantic crucifixion that hangs
over the new altar. It was made out of shrapnel that had been taken from the
wounds of Polish soldiers, collected and sent from all over the country to
make the sculpture in the new church.
Along with his steady mastery of red tape and showing up (again and
again and again), Wojtyla's gifts as public speaker matured during the 70's.
They were on daily display during his years in Krakow whenever he gave
sermons or led a procession through the streets celebrating one of the many
Catholic feast days. During partition, long decades when the Poles could not
speak freely, they learned the survival tactic of Aesopian double speak.
People spoke of "Christ's crucifixion" and meant their own; they spoke of
"freedom under God" and meant release from their oppressors. Wojtyla knew
this subversive habit well, and he practiced artful symbolic dodge every
Sunday at St. Florian's, his church in Krakow. When the cardinal spoke of
"truth in everyday life" the congregation knew he meant both "Christ's
truth" and the plain truth: all that wasn't a Communist lie. It was not a
call to revolution, but it was a little expression of everyone's anger toward
the regime, a little reminder that everyone clearly knew the difference
between honesty and falsehood. As prosaic as this might seem in our
outrageously expressive democracy, Wojtyla's words drew new people -- even
those who weren't religious came to church as a way of casting their silent
vote against the regime.
The Communists began to blunder crudely. In the late 70's, there were
bloody clashes between workers and police after the government again raised
food prices. Five priests disappeared in a short period of time. The police
killed a popular student leader. Wojtyla became more and more outspoken, calling
openly and concretely for the "right to freedom...an atmosphere of genuine
freedom untrammeled...unthreatened; an atmosphere of inner freedom, of freedom
from fearing what may befall me if I act this way or go to that place."
As a young man, Father Zieba was in the student opposition before he
joined the Dominican order. He saw the student leader's death transform
Wojtyla. "It focused him. That's when he stepped out from behind Wyszynski
and started to make his official first statements." For the young Zieba, "the
homilies during this period were so beautiful and moving that we typed them up and
passed them around."
Father Bardeicki told us another story which powerfully suggests not only how
visible Wojtyla was in those years, but also how well he knew it. Father
Bardeicki decide to run an abbreviated account of a meeting between Polish
Party Secretary Edward Gierek and Pope Paul VI in Rome. The Communists accused
Wojtyla, as Tygodnik Powszechny's advisor, of censorship. People were
outraged. The editorial staff gathered at the Archbishop's palace to discuss
the situation. On the way home, Father Bardeicki was very badly beaten: he lost
teeth; his nose was broken; if his attackers hadn't been surprised and fled, he
might have been killed. When Wojtyla saw his injured, bandaged friend, he was
silent for a moment. Then the Cardinal said, "You got that for me."
From the first day of his election, John Paul II's pontificate raised
concern in Central Committee headquarters. The Canadian reporter, Eric
Margolis, described it this way: "I was the first Western journalist inside
the KGB headquarters in 1990. The generals told me that the Vatican and the
Pope above all was regarded as their number one, most dangerous enemy in the
world." Soon enough, people of all sorts--world leaders, clandestine dissidents
and ordinary Catholics--sensed the Communists were impotent before the Polish
Pope. In 1979, when John Paul II's plane landed at Okecie Airport, church bells
ran throughout the country. He criss-crossed his beloved Poland, deluged by
adoring crowds. He preached thirty-two sermons in nine days. Bogdan Szajkowski
said it was, "A psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political
catharsis..." The Poles who turned out by the millions looked around and saw
they were not alone. They were a powerful multitude. The Pope spoke of human
dignity, the right to religious freedom and a revolution of the spirit--not
insurrection. The people listened. As George Wiegel observed, "It was a lesson
in dignity, a national plebiscite, Poland's second baptism."
Our images of revolution are filled with blood-stained pictures: French aristocrats lined up against the Bastille wall; the Tsar's family executed in
a cellar under cover of night; Mao's victims floating down the Yellow River.
The romantic collective Polish psyche brims with images of violent, quixotic
rebellions. They range from the futile uprisings of the 19th century to the
calvary charging German tanks on horseback at the beginning of World War II.
But the revolution launched by John Paul's return to Poland is one that
conjures roads lined with weeping pilgrims, meadows of peaceful souls singing
hymns, and most of all, of people swaying forward as one--reaching for the
extraordinary man in white as he is borne through their midst. "What is the
greatest, most unexpected event of the 20th century?" James Carroll asked in
his interview with us. "Isn't it that the Soviet Empire was brought down
non-violently? Isn't John Paul II's story part of it?"
Again and again, people told us that it was. John Paul II's 1979 trip was
the fulcrum of revolution which led to the collapse of Communism. Timothy
Garton Ash put it this way, "Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without
Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism." (In fact,
Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin's long-term enemy this due, "It would have
been impossible without the Pope.") It was not just the Pope's hagiographers
who told us that his first pilgrimage was the turning point. Skeptics who felt
Wojtyla was never a part of the resistance said everything changed as John Paul
II brought his message across country to the Poles. And revolutionaries,
jealous of their own, also look to the trip as the beginning of the end of
It took time; it took the Pope's support from Rome--some of it
financial; it took several more trips in 1983 and 1987. But the flame was lit.
It would smolder and flicker before it burned from one end of Poland to the
other. Millions of people spread the revolution, but it began with the Pope's
trip home in 1979. As General Jaruzelski said, "That was the detonator."
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