Memories of a Papal Visit: Two Faces of Poland

In the 1970s I began to make some reflections in my diary concerning the situation in Poland. Sometimes they were quite trivial descriptions of daily living conditions and situations. A part of these materials I had to throw away when I was questioned by customs officers as I was leaving Poland. The second copy of the diary, which was deposited at my friends’ house, was sent to me, via England. I decided to present some of these reflections in unaltered form, leav­ing all conclusions for the readers themselves to make.

I got to my office at the university, but not without troubles. The country waited eagerly for the first visit of John Paul II, and Krakow expected thousands of people to arrive from all over the world to see the pope in the city where he began his great career. A real fever seized Krakovians and it was difficult to get through the crowd that kept decorating the streets. In front of my office I found Joanna, the daughter of my English friends who had recently been visiting Poland. She was born in England but her parents were Poles and they left Poland shortly after the war. Joanna wanted to complete her doctoral thesis but she was always in a rush and seemed not to have enough time for study. Now, she was impatiently shifting her weight from one foot to the other, staring at my students.

“Tell me please,” she asked when I let her in, “how long this madness will last. Since yesterday people have been setting flowers along the streets where the pope will drive. The windows of the houses look like wayside shrines. I know that it is an important visit but some of what is going on here is pure, national madness.”

“This nation,” I said seriously, “is ninety-six percent Catholic. For Poland, Catholicism is something more than just a religion. People believe that it gives the nation its iden­tity, which our enemies have tried to tear up by the roots for two centuries. Throughout the partitions of Poland the Church was always the institution that united Poles and stimulated their attachment to tradition, language, and religion. After the war, besides its religious functions, the Church became a symbol of spiritual resistance against a materialistic and atheistic system.”

“And now Poles,” she answered, “with all their typical romanticism, wait for miracles to accompany the pope’s visit.”

“Don’t mock our romanticism,” I retorted, “it helped the Poles to survive when other nations forgot that we even existed at all.”

“And this romanticism,” she snapped back, “brought you a series of senseless uprisings which, instead of miracles, brought thousands of casualties.”

“Perhaps these uprisings were not so senseless as you profess. Maybe, thanks to them and to the memory of all the casualties, the Poles preserved their national identity. Don’t you think that, for the last two hundred years, Polish boys and girls at heart were Poles because they never could forget that someone in their family or closest friends died for Poland? Thinking that way, one can admit that Polish romanticism brought not only defeats but also successes.”

We came nearer to the window and looked out at the crowd of people gathering along the street.

“And the successes of your romanticism contain the origin of your national defeats.” Joanna was definitely in an aggressive mood. “The romanticism of Poles lies in the fact that in difficult moments they console themselves that `things will turn out well.’ Such a philosophy does not en­courage them to wait passively for the progress of events. On the contrary, it mobilizes them to a variety of deeds, the ineffectiveness of which one could easily predict with ra­tional analysis. And what is really amazing is that a few times these senseless undertakings were apparently suc­cessful. You succeeded like an amateur chess player who was playing with no concept of strategy, and accidentally defeated a professional master. The point is that Poles jump to conclusions and believe that because of their special na­tional character they follow some special, not necessarily logical, rules of existence. As your Swietochowski wrote, Poles view Heaven as a big attic which is spread all over the world. But the door to this attic is suspended only over Poland, so only Poles can dry their laundry there.”

“You are right to some extent,” I listened to her atten­tively, “the irrationality of Poles makes them believe in things which are quite impossible. On the other hand, ‘faith can move mountains,’ and as you said yourself, our faith motivates Poles to act, which is, finally, a positive result.”

“What sort of man is your pope in private? He seemed to be quite close to your family. Perhaps I will be able to contribute an article on him to one of London’s papers.”

“In Krakow,” I replied, “every second man knew him and every third believed himself to be his personal friend. Really, he was more an acquaintance of my parents than of mine. He often attended birthday and Christmas parties and baptized children in our family. I remember that, as a young boy, I used to hide when he was coming because I did not want to kiss his bishop’s ring. He also hated this ritual, but my mother stood by it scrupulously.”

“What sort of man is he in private?” She kept asking questions.

“Quite modest, even shy, and not very talkative. Being with him you have a strange impression that he presents as much energy as tranquility. A pretty strange combination, isn’t it? If you bind it together with a rare gift for very precise thinking, and great erudition, you get some of his personality.

“As a teenager I often asked questions to provoke him. He always tried to find some point which harmonized our positions rather than disagreeing with me. From this com­mon ground he used to steer the discussion in such a way that you unconsciously agreed with his arguments. Sudden­ly, you would find yourself much closer to his starting point than to your own, and, most amazing, you never had the im­pression that you had lost the argument. He made it in such a kind-hearted way, that no one could have a shade of doubt that this ‘victory’ gave him any personal satisfaction. Of course I was not much of a partner for him, but in those discussions he always seemed to treat me very seriously, without the visible condescension so typical of great men.

“As I think about it now, it seems to me that the thing which strikes people most at first contact with him is an im­pression of great placidity flowing from sound belief, from confidence in the rightness of his activity. His kindliness, modesty and lack of aspiration to personal grandeur create the impression that this confidence must have its source somewhere beyond him. His unique charisma, to which everyone yields, resides just in that. If you combine all these characteristics with very human vitality, energy, interest in sports, mountaineering, skiing, and theatre, you get a most unusual personality. He combines all the human attributes with a spiritual distance — he leaves an impression of op­timistic calm. To put it plainly, if there are individuals who by their very presence can convince others of the existence of God, Wojtla is undoubtedly one of them.”

I came to the window and, after a moment, I beckoned to Joanna.

“Look.” She indicated the scene on the street. “Could any of the leaders of the Polish Communist Party generate so much spontaneous activity in these people?”

There was an immense crowd of people standing along Krakow’s Planty. Children with bunches of flowers were being located in the first rows. From the neighboring building a soldier was slowly rolling out a wheel chair with a lady sitting in it. Another was wrapping her in a blanket. On the street, two policemen were arranging flowers blown away by the wind.

“Only a party secretary, who could stand with a rosary or cross, is missing there,” Joanna said, turning from the window.

As if in response to this comment, the door of my office opened and an imposing scholar entered the room in a dignified manner. His small eyes were barely visible in his moon-like, smoothly shaved face.

“How nice to see the cream of the Polish humanities. You won’t mind if I join you in this regal box?” he asked, kissing Joanna’s hand and looking around suspiciously.

“My distinguished colleague,” I said, introducing him, “intends to do the pope the honor of watching him from this window. In accordance with a principle that the party is always with the nation. But, I believe that he will forgive us, if we leave him here alone. For us, nonparty people, holy water is not dangerous. We were just going downstairs to watch the pope from the street.”

“Of course. But please, be careful. That pious mob could trample our luminaries of Polish science. It would be an irreparable loss.” My party colleague seemed quite im­pervious to my hints.

“That was the secretary of the party at our university. He probably wants to check which of the professors will be on the street,” I explained when we reached the stairs.

“A face unblemished by intelligence,” Joanna mur­mured to herself.

“You would be unfair to him,” I added. “He comes from a very poor family and wants to make a career by any possible means.”

We reached the street just at the last moment, to see the car with the pope. We had only a glimpse of the white figure of John Paul II blessing the crowd. Actually, a quite dif­ferent picture stuck in my memory. In the window of the in­stitute, next to my office, we saw a student with a big paper tube who leaned out so far he was in danger of falling, and yelled to the whole street: “Viva Pope! Viva Wojtla! Come back to us!” The crowd joined in the chant, and the jour­nalists and reporters unanimously shifted their cameras from the Holy Father to the front of the institute building on which at this moment appeared a big banner in the papal colors with the gigantic caption.: “Students are always with you.” In the room next to the yelling student, we saw the pale face of the secretary pressed to the window.

“You know,” Joanna said as, a moment later, we were walking with the crowd toward the bishop’s palace, “the window separating your party colleague from the watching students looked like a symbol. Downstairs you could find everyone, professors, workers, farmers, priests, students, soldiers and even militiamen. Those windows separate them more and more from the party elite. The pope’s visit may speed up this process of national integration. I believe it should say something significant to the party dignitaries of your friend’s sort.”

“That probably is the wisest thing you ever said in your life,” I said quite seriously. “You had a rare opportunity to observe how in a few days the national solidarity, which we all tried to consolidate, became an accomplished fact.”

We slowly approached Franciszkanska Street, where the crowd of young boys and girls gathered, peering into the windows of the bishop’s palace. “Come out to us,” they called.

A minute later we saw the smiling face of John Paul H in one of the windows. He said, “Well, will you take me to the mountains as before?”

“Our mountains always belong to you,” a girl in the first row said.

“I will meet you tomorrow in time for Mass at Blonia,” he answered. “And now go, and may God bless you.”

He made the sign of the cross and the crowd shouted, “Stay with us!”

“How can I stay with you,” John Paul asked jokingly, “if you don’t let me sleep? I am tired after the flight.”

“Sto lat, sto lat, niech zyje, zyje nam . . . live for us one hundred years …,” the crowd began to sing.

A moment later a young boy standing in the first row struck up the Polish national anthem, “Poland has not perished yet…”

John Paul appeared once more in the window and join­ed in singing. It seemed to me that I saw tears in the pope’s eyes. With real surprise I realized that Joanna was singing loudly with the whole crowd. She tried to cover her face with both fists, but tears dripped through her fists and streamed down her face.

The crowd was slowly dissipating. We walked silently toward Blonia where Joanna’s hotel was located. In front of the “Cracovia Hotel” Joanna looked up at me, her eyes still moist, and said, “Thank you for taking me there. I was not born in this country but for a moment at least I felt a Pole.”

Heading home, I purchased some evening newspapers. With real amusement I found that all of them featured the student, with his paper tube, welcoming the pope from the window of the institute. In all the pictures one could also perceive the pale but recognizable face of the secretary, gazing from behind the neighboring window.

Rett R. Ludwikowski


Professor Ludwikowski holds doctorate degrees in law and legal and political theory. He came to the Catholic University of America in 1984 and has been a professor of law at the Columbus School of Law since 1985 and the director of the International Business and Trade Summer Law Program in Poland since 1991.

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