John Paul II's army was greater than the most powerful armies of his time

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • January 6, 2011
Pope John Paul IIOn Oct. 16, 1978, the day that a relatively obscure Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla stepped onto St. Peter’s Square and announced himself as Pope John Paul II,  Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was living in exile in Cavendish, Vermont. Informed that a Pole, a man with firsthand experience of communism, had just been chosen to lead the world’s oldest and largest Christian church, Solzhenitsyn said: “It’s a miracle! It’s the first positive event since World War I and it’s going to change the face of the world.”

How right he was! Solzhenitsyn and John Paul ll are now both dead, but each man irrevocably altered history: Solzhenitsyn, by his heroic witness to truth amidst the freezing darkness of the Gulag Archipelago and Karol Wojtyla — “a man from a far country” as he called himself — by the 27 years of his papacy.

George Weigel, the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, D.C.,  is a leading authority on Catholic matters and the author of the definitive (and bestselling) 1999 biography: Pope John Paul ll: Witness to Hope. Weigel has now returned to this subject in The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul ll, the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, and the Legacy (Doubleday, 2010).

After the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Soviet Empire imploded, the extent of the communist conspiracy mounted against the Pope gradually came to light. Weigel  combed through secret police archives, from the KGB, the East German Stasi and the Polish SB. At one time approximately 400 agents were working full-time to bring down the successor to St. Peter. Why? Because the Communists calculated (rightly) that he was the greatest threat to their continued existence.

The May 13, 1981 assassination attempt by a Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca (a Bulgarian secret police operation) was only the most obvious effort. It is sad to read here that subversion had assistance even from inside the Vatican, including high Church officials who were police informants. Weigel names names.

Through it all the Polish pope and his inner circle — including the present Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — were immovable, the impregnable rock against which these waves of malignant conspiracy crashed and broke.

The middle section of Weigel’s book focuses on the events culminating in the Great Jubilee Year, 2000. These events included the pope’s pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to historic sites associated with Abraham and Moses; the year-long vocational celebrations; the preparation for publication in English of the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Lenten introduction of Divine Mercy devotions; the emphasis on cleansing the conscience of the Church and seeking forgiveness for past sins; perhaps most important, the phenomenon that became World Youth Day.

In the final years (2002-2005) John Paul II provided a visual lesson in the redemptive possibility of suffering. Weigel aptly calls this “…a pilgrim journey through a darkening valley.” With his mind still sharp, the pope’s body increasingly resembled a calcified shell, his face a mask, almost bent double, his limbs trembling and no longer responsive to his control, his speech mangled and sometimes unintelligible, and his “…clear blue eyes (that) spoke of the pain at what his body had done to him. Yet they also spoke silently of suffering borne in faith and of the abandonment of self to the will of God.”

In the late afternoon of April 2, 2005 the pope lay dying in his Vatican apartment. Hearing chanting from young people keeping vigil below, he signaled to an attendant that he had a message for them: “I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you.” Just before 7 p.m. an attending nun, Sr. Tobiana, placed her head next to his mouth and heard him whisper: “Let me go to the Father’s house.” The pope then slipped into a coma and two hours later his strong Polish heart had ceased to beat.

Of Pope John Paul II’s legacy, it is much too early to say, although Weigel devotes the last hundred pages to this subject. Actually, it will take decades, perhaps centuries, to assess and comprehend the full legacy of John Paul “the great”— and for once in our tawdry times, this encomium is deserved.

Of his pivotal role in the defeat of Communism, readers will recall that Joseph Stalin once sneered: “The pope? And how many divisions does he have?” American columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: “Stalin could only have said that because he never met John Paul II. …Within 10 years of his elevation to the papacy, John Paul had given his answer to Stalin and to the ages: More than you have. More than you can ever imagine.”

John Paul II’s spiritual legacy is that he was a faithful priest, a courageous bishop, a prophetic pope and everywhere and at all times a witness to hope.

(Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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