A Pope and a President in Poland

Staff Columnist

A few weeks ago in these pages I wrote about a Pontiff and a President.  The President was the same,  the Pontiff was different.  The times of the two Popes were different also.  The earlier piece was set in the present.  This column is set in the past and last week.  The President is the same, our current one, Donald Trump.

“In a good Warsaw speech, Trump invokes one of Pope John Paul II’s great 1979 orations.”

(Declarations by Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, July 8-9, 2017)

“The greatest speeches given in Poland in the modern era were delivered in June 1979 by a pope.  Ten months into his papacy,

John Paul Il sweetly asked the government of Poland for permission to journey home from Rome to visit his people.  Europe was divided between the politically free and the unfree, on one side the democracies of Western Europe, on the other the communist bloc.  Poland had been under the Soviet yoke since the end of World War II.

John Paul knew his people: They did not want dictatorship, and a primary means of resistance was through their faith.  The Catholic  Church of Poland survived precariously, within limits, under constant pressure, as John Paul knew, having been a cardinal in Krakow for 11 years.

What would happen when the first Polish pope went home? If Warsaw refused his request it would be an admission of weakness: They feared his power to rouse and awaken the people.  But if they invited him they risked rebellion, which would bring on a Soviet crackdown and could bring in Soviet troops.  They chose to invite him, calculating that as a sophisticated man he would , knowing the stakes, play it cool.  He happily accepted their terms.  It would be a religious pilgrimage, not a political event.”

More from Noonan: “ And so it began.  On June 2, in Victory Square in the old city of Warsaw, John Paul celebrated Mass.  Halfway through , the crowd began to chant: ‘We want God!’ We want God!’  He asked: What was the greatest work of God? Man.  Who redeemed man?  Christ.  Therefore, he declared, ‘Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude. . . .   The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.’ Even those who oppose Christ, he said, still inescapably live within the Christian context of history.  And Christ is not only the past for Poland, he is also the future, our Polish Future.

’The chant turned to thunder:  We want God!”

John Paul was speaking not only to the faithful but to the rulers and apparatchiks of an atheist state.  He did not explicitly challenge them.  He spoke only of spiritual matters.  And yet he was telling the government that Poland is the faith and the faith is Poland, and there is nothing communism can ever do to change that.”

“The next day he spoke outside the cathedral in the small city of Gniezno.  Again, he struck only spiritual themes – nothing about governments, unions, fights for political freedom.  ‘Does not Christ want, does not the Holy Spirit demand, that the pope, himself a Pole, the pope, himself a Slav, here and now should bring out into the open the spiritual unity of Christian Europe . . .?”

“Oh yes, he sad, Christ wants that.  At both events he was telling Poles that they should see their position differently.  Don’t see Europe divided between free and unfree, see the wholeness that even communism can’t take away.”

“At the end of the trip, at Krakow’s Blonie Field, a muddy expanse just beyond the city, there was again a public mass.  The government refused to publicize it but word spread.  Two million people came, the biggest gathering in the history of Poland.

It is possible, John Paul said to dismiss Christ and all he has brought into the history of man.  Human beings are free and can say no.  But should they say no to the one ‘with whom we have lived for 1,000 years? He who formed the basis of our identity and has himself remained its basis ever since?’  He was telling the communist usurpers:  You’ll never win.”

Peggy Noonan adds: “Years later I asked Lech Walesa about the impact of the pope’s trip.  Poland, he said always knew that communism could not be reformed but could be defeated. “We knew the minute he touched the foundations of communism, it would collapse.”

She goes on to President Trump’s speech in Warsaw:  “Near the top he deftly evoked John Paul’s 1979 visit and the sermon that brought on the chants.  ‘A million Polish people did not ask for wealth.  They did not ask for privilege.  Instead one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We want God’.  He called the Polish people the ‘soul of Europe.”

“It was a grown-up speech that said serious things, Article 5, the NATO mutual defense commitment’ is still operative.  Missile defense is necessary.  He called out Russia for its ‘destabilizing activities.’  He spoke as American presidents once did, in the traditional language of American leadership, with respect for alliances.

But he did it with a twist: The West is not just a political but a cultural entity worth fighting for.  It is a real thing, has real and radical enemies, and must be preserved.”

A lovely passage: “We write symphonies.  We pursue innovation.  We celebrate our ancient heroes . . . and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.  We reward brilliance.  We strive for excellence, . . . We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.  We empower women as pillars of our society and our success. . . . And we debate everything.  We challenge everything.  We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.”

With the passage of a bit of time since those words in Warsaw by Trump, some criticism has developed.  Some say his was a White speech, maybe even a Christian speech.  I didn’t think so.  I thought it was an American speech, well received by his hosts.




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