My wife gave me the book "John Paul the Great" by Peggy Noonan for my birthday... so far, it is very compelling reading. Awhile back I did an article for the Community News of St. Louis, and I am posting it here. I wrote it shortly after his death this past year.
This guy will probably be a saint in my lifetime, and most likely deservedly so. He sure was the right guy for the job at the time.
A BROTHER OF THE PEOPLES: KAROL WOJTYLA
A great upset was in the making in the fall of 1978. The leaders of one of the oldest religions were gathered to choose their new leader. Again. They were still numb from the shock of the untimely death of one of their brothers whom they had just elevated to the highest position only two months previous. It was in this unprecedented atmosphere that Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal prelate from Poland, became the first Slavic pope, and the first non-Italian to be named to the pontificate in 455 years.
The whole world, but especially the Catholic world, was in for quite an experience.
Much has been written about the effect of the papacy of Pope John Paul II. He was so influential during his 26 year run that he is now being heralded by some as “The Great”, a designation given only to two other successors of Peter. For many, this man was the only pope they had known. With his travels, his reaching out to all religions and peoples, he changed the perception of “The Pope” for millions of people. But this can all be chronicled elsewhere, far better than I.
What will be shared here is a lesser known story that serves to point up the power that this one man wielded, as he went about his business as archbishop of Krakow during the years of communist domination of Eastern Europe. It is a story of the strength of will, almost prophetic in nature, a sign of even greater things to come.
The year was 1952. The Soviets had political power over Poland as a result of the post-World War II agreement between Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. They wanted to make a statement, to create a monument of sorts to their ideology. So on the outskirts of Krakow, they constructed an industrial city. It was built with their latest technology, to showcase the greatness that, they said, was communism. The enormous Lenin Steelworks was the keystone, along with “efficient” apartment complexes that would house some of the over 27,000 workers who toiled there in its peak. It was called Nova Huta, and it was to be the crown jewel of the “new order” in Eastern Europe.
But this city was unusual in a way that no other new city ever had been. In keeping with the Soviet atheistic philosophy, this town was built without a church. Not one single church of any kind.
This did not set well with Karol Wojtyla, then archbishop of Krakow.
During the next decade, along with Poland’s Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the future pope kept up a relentless pressure on the communist authorities to allow him to have free and non-violent assemblies. The dictatorship held fast, however. They did allow the assemblies but a church was out of the question.
For 12 years, the man from Wadowice said Christmas Mass in an open field, clearly in defiance of the dictates against it. He even had a cross erected on the site.
Through sheer force of will and courage in the face of death, Karol Wojtyla led his people thorough those God-less years.
And the people of Nova Huta eventually got their church.
By virtue of his leadership, the power of the people, the Catholic Church became the only independent authority in communist Eastern Europe. This success helped to embolden the Solidarity labor movement, and eventually, many historians say, led to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe.
Maybe Karol Wojtyla was just merely the right guy in the right place at precisely the right time.
But maybe it was something more.
The Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki may have known this man would come to the forefront of world events. In a poem written more than a century before that October day in 1978, he said:
Amidst all the discord,
God sets an immense bell ringing,
He opens the throne to a Slavic Pope….
Much energy is needed to rebuild the Lord’s world;
and that is why a Slavic Pope is coming,
a brother of the peoples…
A brother of the peoples. All the peoples. His papal motto was “Totus Tuus”, “totally yours.” That was the essence of Karol Wojtyla.
We may never see the likes of him again.