John Paul II Challenged Tyranny

THERE WERE NO INQUISITIONS, no holy crusades, no emperors kneeling in the snow. But when John Paul II took the stage in Warsaw on a sunny day in June 1979, he was challenging an empire as surely as medieval pontiffs grappled with the secular powers of their age. With Soviet leaders watching from Moscow and Western audiences held rapt by his audacity, the newly appointed Pontiff affirmed the right of Poles to worship freely in an autonomous, Christian nation - an unmistakable challenge to the country's Communist rulers. "There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map," he told hundreds of thousands of onlookers. Emboldened, the crowd began to chant: "We want God, we want God."

Few chapters of modern history are dedicated to popes. But with his campaign against Soviet-era totalitarianism in the late 1970s, John Paul left a mark on history that his staunchest critics now acknowledge: his subtle defiance of Communist authority proved as effective as the most brazen political resistance; his belief in religion as a peaceful catalyst for political change set a template for clerics around the world. "I think this has to be at the centre of his legacy," says Padraic Kenney, a University of Colorado historian who studied the Pope's influence in Eastern Europe. "If we look at his entire life - his opposition to dictatorial regimes, based on an idea of casting away fear and reclaiming human dignity - we can safely say this was the core of his life."

As a young man, Karol Wojtyla had survived the Nazi occupation of Poland by immersing himself in his passions for religion, drama and poetry. Undaunted by Fascist tyranny, he wrote plays and acted in clandestine theatre productions while labouring in a chemical plant near Cracow. At the same time, he secretly began studying for the priesthood at an underground seminary - a potentially grave risk with Church-wary Nazis running the country. In August 1944, he was nearly caught: in the wake of the Warsaw Uprising, as the Gestapo swept Cracow for young men, Wojtyla hid in the basement of the archbishop's residence. For the Polish CATHOLIC CHURCH, his survival was fortuitous. After joining the priesthood, Wojtyla would rise quickly through the ecclesiastical ranks following the war, becoming bishop by the age of 38 and cardinal nine years later.

Wojtyla never forgot those terror-filled nights, or the plight of his countrymen afterward. As a prelate, he became an implacable critic of the Communist regime that replaced the Nazis, defying attempts to limit the Church's influence. Emmett Cardinal Carter, the former archbishop of Toronto who died in 2003, recalled visiting the then archbishop of Cracow in 1967 and taking part in a procession. The future pope had told Carter the authorities had prohibited loudspeakers, or houses decorated with vestments, statues and likenesses of the Holy Virgin along the route. "Right away, I heard loudspeakers and saw houses decorated," recounted Carter. "I said, 'Your Eminence, you told me these things weren't allowed.' And he said, 'Yes, they told me that. But I have a very poor memory.' "

Eight months after becoming pope in 1978, John Paul made his triumphant return to Warsaw. George Weigel, who wrote the Pope's authorized biography, Witness to Hope, argues that the appearance launched the unravelling of the Communist apparatus by inspiring "a revolution of conscience" in the Eastern bloc. "At that moment," he says, "a critical mass of people decided they were going to stop acquiescing to the Communists." Barely a year later, a series of strikes culminated in a work stoppage at the Gdansk shipyards. Significantly, the workers chose religion as a symbol of their defiance, adorning the shipyard gates with the Black Madonna and other icons. The Pope provided support for the strikers, both explicit and, by some accounts, covert. Members of Ronald Reagan's U.S. administration claim that John Paul acted as a messenger between the Solidarity movement and Washington. While the Vatican has denied the Pope played such a role, it was clear where his sympathies lay: in 1981 he published an encyclical on labour which, among other things, asserted the rights of workers to freely associate.

Kenney, who wrote a book on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, says a key moment there came in July 1985, when the regime sanctioned a commemoration of the 1,100th anniversary of the death of St. Methodius, who helped bring Christianity to that part of Europe. The authorities, aware of John Paul's great appeal, refused him a visa. At the main event in Velehrad, 200,000 people drowned out the Communist speakers with chants of "We want the Pope. We want Mass." Such defiance was "unthinkable" before John Paul, says Kenney.

While he abhorred Communism, John Paul was a critic of capitalism as well. He fought for workers' rights, and pleaded for wealthy nations to forgive Third World debt. "May no one feel tranquil," he said during a visit to an Ecuadorean slum in 1985, "while in Ecuador there is a child without school, a family without a home, a worker without a job, an ill or elderly person without adequate attention." Five years later, he made an equally impassioned appeal in the impoverished African nation of Burkina Faso, asking "his brothers and sisters around the world not to scorn the hungry of this continent, not to deny them the universal right to human dignity and the security of life."

That message set the stage for the Vatican's broader emphasis in recent years on Asia, South America and Africa, where 75 per cent of Catholic baptisms now take place. Faced with the steady march of secularization in wealthy countries, future pontiffs may focus on issues arising from their true locus of power. In such a role, they are unlikely to match John Paul's influence among Western leaders. "They won't be hobnobbing at that level any more," says Robert Ventresca, a historian at the University of Western Ontario who has studied the papacy. "In places like Africa and Latin America, they may even align themselves against globalization. That would create much more of a North-South dynamic in world politics."

If that occurs, says Ventresca, the Vatican could enhance its status as a voice of moral suasion, ignored by superpowers at their peril. But that's not the same as abetting a bloodless revolution, or altering the path of history. And Catholics may wait a long time to see a pontiff walk as boldly as John Paul in the arena of political power, where alliances are forged, democracies are born and empires - however large their armies - are brought to ruin.

Maclean's April 11, 2005