John Paul II’s 1983 Visit to Poland: Anniversary Reflections

It was sixty years ago that the Hungarian émigré historian, John Lukacs, published his first book, The Great Powers and Eastern Europe, a masterful treatment of the subject, whose conclusion, including an elegy on the lost world he left behind, has haunted me for years.   Surveying the wreckage of that shattered and divided world, he declared that “only the magnetic force of a rejuvenated, remade, and truly united Western Europe, one that has recovered the erstwhile spiritual greatness of that Christian continent, can eventually develop enough attraction to penetrate the steely barriers separating the West from Eastern Europe’s modern police state.”

That was written in 1953, beneath the cloudless skies of the Eisenhower years, which means that thirty-five more years would need to elapse before the world could witness the final and conclusive collapse of the Soviet Empire in Europe.  It all started a quarter century ago, in other words, beginning with the so-called Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November of 1989, which smashed the fist of the single-party Communist state, leaving the rest of us, especially those smugly ensconced amid the flesh pots of the capitalist West, in a state of stunned surprise.

How, we asked ourselves, could a people divided for more than forty years by such a massive and impregnable symbol of Soviet sanctioned oppression as the Iron Curtain, come suddenly together in spontaneous and joyous fashion to dance atop the ruins of the Berlin Wall?

Under the impact of what idea or force of history did the whole Marxist superstructure of violence and deceit suddenly fall away, its final implosion taking place before the eyes of an astonished and grateful world?  Was it merely the weight of so many outmoded and discredited economic policies that brought down the beast?    The inherent illogic of socialist doctrine finally catching up with the idiots of ideology in the Kremlin—was that the warhead?    If Socialism, as someone once wittily put it, were ever to be imposed upon the world of the Sahara, absolutely nothing would happen for fifty years, after which there would be a shortage of sand.  Given the impacted ineptitudes of the collectivist system, how could it behave otherwise than to self-destruct?

But why at that precise moment of history?  Where had the courage and the resolution come from which, all at once, possessed a people so accustomed to generations of supine submissiveness, to mobilize on behalf of their own liberties, their own future?  Was there a special magic at work here?

Conventional wisdom tells us that the Warsaw Pact countries, mere satellites of the Soviet Union, broke the orbit of their dependency simply because they could no longer compete with Western technology, Western consumerism, which is to say, the whole capitalist bag of tricks.  The puppetry could no longer be propped up once enough people had seen the Land of Oz beyond the sea.

But people do not imperil their lives, nor mortgage their children’s future, merely in order to spend more cash.  However high the ceiling, purchasing power has only so much bounce.   Desire may be infinite, but not the appetite on which it feeds.  Something very different and much deeper than television sets and designer jeans has to rivet the mind and heart of a captive people to make them yearn for freedom.

So what was it that changed the face of Europe in 1989, redefining the politics of the world in that year of miracles?  And have we the same spark that ignited the souls of all those who survived the great train wreck of the last century?  If we haven’t, is it possible to get it back?

As the work of George Weigel, among others, has amply demonstrated, the decisive overthrow of Soviet tyranny really began in the summer of 1983, when the Vicar of Christ, John Paul II, visited for the second time his native land where, infusing his countrymen with the sense of belonging to God, fortified them with the strength and courage they would need to throw off the tyranny of the past.

How the world seemed then to be fixated on the fate of Poland!  Her famous son had just returned in triumph, reminding his beleaguered brothers and sisters of their solidarity before God and his Mother.  Reminding, too, and with salutary sternness, the slave masters who sought to strangle the nation and its culture.  At Czestochowa especially, the historic heart of Polish piety, the pope bore powerful witness to Our Lady’s tender regard for her people.  “Our common Mother,” he called her, “her eyes tear-filled and sad on this six-hundredth anniversary of her feast, knows your sufferings … your sense of injustice and humiliation.”

Indeed, in the knowledge of those forty years of virulent atheist tyranny—the combined hideousness of first Nazi and then Soviet occupation, all the brutalizing years of her subjugation beneath the twin boots of twentieth century terror—the Pope led an audience of almost one million faithful Poles in a thunderous rendition of Mary, Queen of Poland.

“How many divisions has the Pope?” derisively asked the despot Stalin.  He hasn’t any.  Only grace enough to topple any regime rooted in untruth and injustice.  Where is Stalin today?  Like the snows of yesteryear, he and his thugs have all gone away, leaving intact the one institution they could not destroy.  And in whose hands God has placed the keys to his Kingdom.

Who can doubt, too, but that during the years leading up to the papal visit, there arose a movement of fierce nationalist pride and conviction from within the very heart of Communist Eastern Europe, a movement that could not have been anticipated or prevented by a single Marxist shibboleth.  As Pope John Paul himself insisted, “This presence of yours has the power of a testimony, a testimony that amazed the whole world when the Polish worker stood up for himself with the Gospel in his hand and a prayer on his lips.”

Again and again, the Pope would sound this single note concerning the necessity of every state, in strict justice, to acknowledge its “people’s right to free association.”  Rooted in the order of creation itself, this right remains ineffaceably inscribed in the moral constitution of every human being, and is rendered yet more precious in the light of Christ.

We are not dealing here with man in the abstract, divested of that uniqueness which ensures that he not be strapped onto some Procrustean bed of totalitarian sameness.  But rather, as the Pope argues, “the real, concrete, historical man.  We are dealing here with each man, for each man is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself forever.”  Every human being belongs to Christ, belongs to the solicitude of the Church he founded to help draw men to God.   We do not confuse the Church with the powers of this world; her identity is not of this world, even as her task is to be in the world as sign and safeguard of the transcended dignity of the human person.

“From the first moment of man’s existence on earth, from the moment of his conception and birth … each man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission … the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

Repeatedly, the Pope struck this essential theme, that the right freely to associate is not given to us by the state, which exists in order to ensure its protection and preservation.  It is a right only God can give.  And having made man in his image, he invites him to find and fulfill that image in a relationship of freedom with others.  For to be is always to be in relation with and to the other

Here we glimpse the deepest meaning of the human person, which touches the plane of metaphysics with its recognition that while each of us remains rooted in himself, we are yet wholly dependent upon Another.  As Fr. William Lynch reminds us in  Christ and Apollo:  “The Catholic imagination does not force me to imagine that at the end I must free myself from all human society to unite myself with God.  Rather, it helps me to imagine that once I have embarked on a good thing (society, for example), I can and must carry it with me all the way into the heart of the unimaginable.”

How vividly I remember seeing the Holy Father on television that prophetic weekend in Poland thirty years ago, insisting that even the tyrants must sooner or later yield to the truth that “man cannot remain without a way out.”  That the despots must move to dismantle what Romano Guardini called “the most hideous manifestation of tyranny,” namely, its determination to deny the truth about man.

I thought too of Dostoevsky, of the character Stefan from The Possessed, who refuses to abide a world without meaning.  “The one essential condition of human existence,” he believed, “is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great.  If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

Could this be the key to the collapse of the Soviet system?  That as Henri de Lubac predicted in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, the whole corrupt enterprise of collectivist tyranny “was bound to end in bankruptcy.  Man is himself only because his face is illumined by a divine ray.”

In that special year of grace, then, when Christ’s Vicar flew into Poland to be with his people, he drew them back from the cusp of a bleak and unrelieved despair by reminding them of ancient attachments intended to redeem their present darkness.  He warned their oppressors of the risks they run in driving God’s people to such an extremity.  It cannot be a good thing, he seemed to be saying, for anyone to neglect the Black Madonna, whose special care is Poland … and the world.  And whose divine Son, Jesus Christ, remains at the center, the axis point of history, offering himself as humanity’s only way out.

What, then, was the Pope’s aim?  It was not merely to remove obstacles pursuant to the renewal of Christian life in Poland.  His motive in going there was rather more ambitious.  It was nothing less than an attempt to re-evangelize the world.  Beginning of course with Europe, whose soul remains in profound need of recovery.  Or as the late Archduke Otto von Habsburg, last surviving link to a Christianized Roman Empire, famously said:  “The Cross does not need Europe; Europe needs the Cross.”  It is what we all need.

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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  • Adrian J Reimers

    All good, except for this: John Paul II’s first visit to Poland was in June 1979. The 1983 pilgrimage was his second.

  • Peter Arnone

    Thank you Mr. Martin. Your message is one we need refer to and contemplate often.

  • John O’Neill

    Unfortunately our present pope has not come from a country that had to suffer under the horror of Socialism and Atheism. Francis comes from a country which spent most of the twentieth century under some form of mild socialism; either fascism or communism. Maybe this has clouded his vision of the current struggle the Church faces in the world. He sees things in the socialist view of rich against poor which is and was the dominant political view of Argentina.

  • Charles_BCCA

    Instead of paying homage to Pope’s circus show we should pay attention to his real legacy. Under his watch the cover-up of abuse of children and nuns continued while he to the very end of his life flaunted himself all over the world in his so called Pope-mobile. Jesus carried the cross while Pope who claims himself to be the vicar of Jesus engaged in pompous frivalaties.

    • slainte

      “….Under his watch the cover-up of abuse of children and nuns…”
      Assign culpability where it properly belongs…to those priests who violated their priestly celibacy vows by engaging in unlawful and immoral acts of homosexual pederasty perpetrated against innocent teenage boys.
      The actions of these priests were reprehensible; the assignment by local bishops of offending priests to alternaitve parishes upon the completion of rehabilitation therapy was neither wise, providential, or sufficient to resolve the problem. Nor did it cure the injury sustained by the teenage boy whose innocence was violated.
      You have produced no proof that Bl. John Paul had knowledge of the scope of the pederasty issue. or that he intentionally refused to act upon learning of any specific case.
      As to abuse perpetrated against Nuns…what abuse?

      • Charles_BCCA

        The actions of Individual Priests were horrible and many of them have paid the price with their impronment and humiliation, sadly some go away with culpability of Bishops who covered up their crimes and moved them from one Parish to another, where they offended again and again. Having said that the actions of the Bishops were far worse as they did not stop the abuse but covered up and as said before allowed the priests to offend again and again abusing more children. Pope being the head of state was fully aware of what was going on — after all the same pattern of cover-up was occurring for decades all across the world where there were Catholic Churches. Additionally, there is evidence that through Ratzinger instructions were issued to Bishops all over the world to put the interest of Church ahead of Children — in other words cover-up at all costs. The Pope himself was issuing statements that there was insignificant problem as to the abuse and it was the enemies of the Church and Pope who were spreading gossip. To now deny Pope’s culpability now is living in alternate reality that does not exist.

        • slainte

          I would apreciate your providing proof of your allegations regarding the pope’s knowledge of these events. The priest abuse incidents were horriific and damaging, especially to the victims, but also to the entire Church as well. The details regarding culpability are still not fully understood.

          I would recommend you to a report commissioned in 2002 by the U. S Conference of Catholic Bishops by an independent entity, The John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, entitled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010”.

          The John Jay report’s analyzes and draws conclusions regarding abuses involving priests which may provide some answers to your very legitimate inquiries.

    • mark


      Noone can possibly defend the appalling behaviour of people who are supposed to behave like mature adults, let alone clergy. But iIn every organisation there will always be some who sneak in “under the radar” for their own selfish agenda.
      BUT if you level condemnation against these people, then – in order to be honest and fair – you should also condemn the many other institutions/people (far greater in number than in the church) eg doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers (who all pledge the Hipocratic Oath); then the navy, the army, the air force, the police, etc. etc.
      Or are you recommending the dismantling of all of these institutions? Because if you are to be in any way fair, then you must!

      By the way, I do not see even a single word of condemnation about the thousands of atheists (people who profess to believe in nothing … except their wallet, a luxury life, in nothing but this existence) who see nothing wrong in “survival of the fittest” at the expense of others, even seeking to exploit children (currently at least 28 MILLION) being held in sexual captivity by brothel owners all over the world, not to mention desperate young women (whose passports are confiscated after being falsely enticed into honourable-sounding work).

      I see no shame on your part for their suffering: I see no promise of endeavour by you to write letters to your local political member – of condemnation of brothels in your own area. I see no empathy from you for their desperation at such a horrific existence … not just for one or two days, but for decades … until they “pay off some supposed debt to the brothel owner”. Not a skerrick of concern from you that these poor women often then resort to drugs “to drown out the horror of their existence”.

      Not a word from Charles_BCCA. Not one. Shame on you as well, Charles.

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