“Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”
St. John Paul II
On June 2-10, 1979, just eight months after his consecration as pope, a young and vigorous St. John Paul II made an apostolic pilgrimage to his native Poland for nine days that changed the world. Officially, Poland had been atheist during the preceding 35 years of Soviet oppression, but spiritually she had been devoutly Catholic for a thousand years. And all Poland proclaimed, We Want God!
On June 2, in Warsaw, right after arriving, St. John Paul II addressed Cardinal Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland, and all the rest of the Church family that could fit into the Warsaw Cathedral. Then he met with Poland’s civil authorities, where he began,
A Poland that is prosperous and serene is also beneficial for tranquility and good collaboration among peoples of Europe.” During his address to the civil authorities he declared, We Poles feel in a particularly deep way the fact that the raison d’être of the State is the sovereignty of society, of the nation, of the motherland.
In two words he arrested the attention of every man there: We Poles. Edward Gierek and his apparatchiki knew they were no match even for Cardinal Wyszyński, much less St. John Paul II, the Polish vicar of Christ. And his raison d’être of the state was a direct challenge to the communist authorities in Poland and Russia.
If Gierek and his apparatchiki were worried about St. John Paul II ’s apostolic pilgrimage before his arrival, they were more worried after he spoke. They made sure the official Polish television coverage consisted of wide shots panning the audience and distant low-grade images of the pope with his voice muffled or covered by commentary. However, the Polish bishops, anticipating this, gave video cameras to people in the crowd, and told them to record the Masses. Their images were far from the high-definition video we’re accustomed to now, but they did record the events for posterity. Newt and Callista Gingrich used them for their video, Nine Days That Changed the World 3:18
St. John Paul II then gave us an awesome vision of Rabbi Yeshua’s presence and power with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It began with his visit to his native Poland on June 2-10, 1979, nine days that changed the world. On June 2 he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square, attended by hundreds of thousands of his fellow Poles. It was crucial that he spoke during the Mass, where he would soon bring forth the living Rabbi Yeshua and feed him to all of the Polish people gathered there. He knew, they all knew, that it was Rabbi Yeshua speaking through him, Rabbi Yeshua who declared,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” Lk 4:18.
About halfway through his Victory Square Homily, St. John Paul II, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed:
To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ. Or rather, man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ. Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.
George Weigel observed,
The applause began slowly, then rose in a crescendo, thundering across the square again and again like storm waves battering a seashore. It continued for eight long minutes. And when it began to subside the singing began. “Christ conquers, Christ rules,” they sang, hundreds of thousands of triumphant voices. And from among the yellow and white papal flags in the crowd a banner was unfurled that read: “Freedom, independence, protection of human rights.”1
Everyone suddenly realized that Christ was the real power. The regime meant nothing. St. John Paul II continued celebrating these Masses for another eight days, and by the time he flew back to the Vatican the fire of freedom had been lit.
Stalin had derisively asked, “How many divisions has the pope,” knowing that the Vatican’s only military forces were the colorful Swiss Guards. But it was protected by a far greater power than Stalin’s. Thirteen years after St. John Paul II lit the flame, the Soviet Union itself cracked and fell apart. In 1989 Poland had a broad campaign of civil resistance to one-party rule. Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania followed. By the end of 1991 Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan had declared their independence from the Soviet Union. It was not an easy time, but they did break free. President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also played important parts. But Rabbi Yeshua, speaking through St. John Paul II, lit the fire of freedom.
I greet Poland, baptized over a thousand years ago. I greet Poland, inserted into the mysteries of the divine life through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. I greet the Church in the land of my forefathers, in hierarchical community and unity with the Successor of Saint Peter. I greet the Church in Poland, which was guided from the beginning by the saints, Bishops and Martyrs, Wojciech (Adalbert) and Stanislaus, in union with the Queen of Poland, Our Lady of Jasna Gora (The Bright Mountain—Czestochowa).
It was the day of Pentecost. St. John Paul II emphasized,
On the day of Pentecost, in the Jerusalem upper room, the promise is fulfilled that was sealed with the blood of the Redeemer on Calvary: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ Jn 20:22-23. The Church is born precisely from the power of these words. The Church is born of the power of this breath.
The Holy Father ended his homily, We shall not return to the past! We shall go towards the future! “Receive the Holy Spirit!” Jn 20:22. The applause was thunderous, and went on and on and on as the Polish people realized, “There are more of us than there are of them!” They began to live the Holy Father’s constant call, “Do not be afraid.”
On June 4, in the city of Częstochowa, at the Jasna Gora Monastery, the Holy Father celebrated Mass before the Shrine of the Black Madonna 4:27. During his homily the Holy Father asked rhetorically, What has happened at Jasna Gora?” And he answered,
We are still unable to give an adequate answer. Something has happened that is beyond our powers of imagining. … Jasna Gora has shown itself an inward bond in Polish life, a force that touches the depths of our hearts and holds the entire nation in the humble yet strong attitude of fidelity to God, to the Church and to her Hierarchy.… For many of us it was a great surprise to see the power of the Queen of Poland display itself so magnificently.
Michael Novak observed in amazement, “The crowd was just vast. Nobody had ever seen a crowd like that in Poland.”
On June 7, at Brzezinka, also called Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. There the Holy Father, during his Brzezinka Homily, united the crucifixion of the Jews with the crucifixion of the Church.
In this site of the terrible slaughter that brought death to four million people of different nations, Father Maximilian voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother, and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. This brother still lives today in the land of Poland. But was Father Maximilian Kolbe the only one? Certainly he won a victory that was immediately felt by his companions in captivity and is still felt today by the Church and the world. However, there is no doubt that many other similar victories were won. I am thinking, for example, of the death in the gas chamber of a concentration camp of the Carmelite Sister Benedicta of the Cross, whose name in the world was Edith Stein, who was an illustrious pupil of Husserl and became one of the glories of contemporary German philosophy, and who was a descendant of a Jewish family living in Wrocklaw.
And he united all of it with his own person as the Vicar of Christ on earth.
I am here today as a pilgrim. It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! And many times I have gone down to Maximilian Kolbe’s death cell and stopped in front of the execution wall and passed among the ruins of the cremation furnaces of Brzezinka. It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.
The Jewish nation was not alone in the Holocaust. From 1523 to 1978 we had 455 consecutive years of Italian popes. Then, starting in 1978, we had a Polish pope followed by a German pope, both of whom reached out to Jews by visiting synagogues, by their writings and speeches, by supporting the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, and by diplomatic approaches to the state of Israel. Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp in Poland run by Germans, has become the signature place of the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the connection during his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau on May 28, 2006.
John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.
St. John Paul II said “impossible.” Benedict XVI said, “could not fail.” These references suggest a God-driven unity, an inherent unity between the Church’s own past and her present, between God’s people Israel and his New Israel. We have witnessed God’s power in replicating the Passover deliverance from Egyptian tyranny by delivering Polish Catholics from Soviet tyranny in our own time.
Poland, the Catholic nation of Europe, its red and white flag reminding us of the blood and water that flowed from Rabbi Yeshua’s side, had also been crucified. St. John Paul II, during his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau (Brzezinka) on June 7, 1979, observed pointedly that six million Poles lost their lives during World War II.
All during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Poland the sun was shining. On the day he went to Auschwitz-Birkenau it rained. But when he went to the memorial to celebrate the interfaith prayer service the sun shone, and a beautiful rainbow appeared over the land. “I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” Gen 9:13.
Also on June 7, the Holy Father visited his old home. His Parish Church of Wadowice Homily began,
It is with deep emotion that I arrive today in the town of my birth, in the parish in which I was baptized and accepted as part of the ecclesial community, and in the surroundings to which I was linked for eighteen years of my life, from when I was born to when I left school.
By this visit he highlighted his personal commitment to a Poland free of the communist yoke, free to worship Rabbi Yeshua as its people wished. We can only imagine the hearts of the people of Wadowice as they sat in the pews remembering young Karol Józef Wojtyła and thinking, “From these humble pews has come forth so great a great pope.” On that day, June 7, 1979, they did not yet know that he would become the second longest-serving pope and be canonized as St. John Paul II. In every parish we must take care to teach our young children the Catholic faith. This could happen again in your parish, or in mine.
This beautiful land is at the same time a difficult land. Rocky, mountainous. Not as fertile as the plain of the Vistula. And so permit me, precisely from this land of the lower Carpathians and the lower Tatra, to make reference to something that has always been very dear to the heart of the Poles: a love for the land and work in the fields. …This is the great and fundamental right of man: the right to work and the right to the land.
The Holy Father spoke of economic development, his beloved Poles instantly recognized Rabbi Yeshua’s metaphor of the vineyard, the place where he sends us to work. The “great and fundamental right to work in the vineyard” is an essential part of our journey to heaven.
On June 10, the final day of his visit, St. John Paul II went to Kraków where he celebrated Mass in Honor of St. Stanislaus, the great Patron Saint of Poland. The crowds started coming early. They gathered, and gathered, and gathered. Two or three million, no one can be certain. A vast crowd, cheering exuberantly before the Mass and more exuberantly after. His homily began,
Today all of us gathered here together find ourselves before a great, mystery in the history of the human race: Christ, after his Resurrection met the Apostles in Galilee and spoke to them the words which we have just now heard from the lips of the deacon who proclaimed the Gospel: “Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:18-20). These words contain a great mystery in the history of humanity and in the history of the individual human person. Every person goes forward. He or she goes forward towards the future. Nations also go forward. So does all humanity. To go forward, however, does not only mean to endure the exigencies of time, continuously leaving behind the past: yesterday, the years, the centuries. To go forward also means being aware of the goal.
St. John Paul II continued,
You must be strong, dear brothers and sisters. You must be strong with the strength that comes from faith. You must be strong with the strength of faith. You must be faithful. Today more than in any other age you need this strength. You must be strong with the strength of hope, hope that brings the perfect joy of life and does not allow us to grieve the Holy Spirit. You must be strong with love, which is stronger than death. You must be strong with the love that: “is patient and kind;… is not jealous or boastful;… is not arrogant or rude… does not insist on its own way;… is not irritable or resentful;… does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:4-8). You must be strong with the strength of faith, hope and charity, a charity that is aware, mature and responsible and helps us to set up the great dialogue with man and the world rooted in the dialogue with God himself, with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, the dialogue of salvation.
Before leaving he also spoke to a gathering of representatives of Poland’s state-controlled mass media:
A word now, specially for you, professionals of the press and the photo agencies, of the radio and television and cinema. More and more, as I observe you going about your work, I am struck by the nobility of the task with which you are charged by your vocation and profession.… Ideally, your lives are dedicated to the service of the truth. As long as you are faithful to that ideal, you are deserving of the respect and gratitude of every person. I would remind you of something Jesus Christ said when he was on trial for his life—it was the only plea he offered in his own defense: “for this was I born and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” Jn 18:37. Apply this, each of you to your own life, and you will find it softens the pain and strengthens your courage in most of life’s trials and frustrations. This is the thought I leave with you until we meet again. Take my greetings and my thanks to your families, and my special love to the children. As I say goodbye to you—and to Poland—I bless you with all my heart.
Sto lat (May you live a hundred years!)
George Weigel wrote:2
John Paul’s triumphant nine days in June 1979 were the beginning of the end of the Yalta imperial system, not only in Poland but throughout Stalin’s empire. In Warsaw, Gniezno, Opole, Czestochowa, Mogila and Kraków, John Paul began in earnest the process by which the communist system was finally dismantled from within. And he did it through thirty-two sermons in which he preached, not insurrection, but the final revolution: the revolution of the spirit in which conscience confronted the fear and acquiescence that kept the society in the grip of the power.
A year later the Solidarity trade union arose in Poland. The Soviets fought with all their human strength, but they had never understood why Siler had been unable to kill Archbishop Pacelli. The KGB, using the Bulgarian secret police for cover, sent Mehmet Ali Ağca, 2:48 a highly skilled assassin, to kill St. John Paul II on May 13, 1981, an anniversary of the Blessed Virgin’s first appearance at Fátima. They did not hear the quiet voice of Rabbi Gamaliel, “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” Acts 5:38-39. Rabbi Yeshua had risen from the dead. His vicar on earth rose from a hospital bed and continued for more than twenty years to serve as pope.
And in the autumn of 1989, Solidarity was instrumental in replacing the Soviet puppet government in Poland with a democracy. Demons try to kill Jn 8:44, but Rabbi Yeshua wins by giving life Jn 10:10. In December 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Holy Father in Rome. Introducing his wife to the Holy Father, Gorbachev said, “Raisa, I introduce you to His Holiness John Paul II, who is the highest moral authority on Earth.”2
Will Rabbi Yeshua do that for us? He told us, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” Jn 14:13. In my name means in complete conformity with Rabbi Yeshua’s identity and mission. We are God’s image Gen 1:26-27. Our purpose, deep in our hearts, has to be that the Father may be glorified in the Son Jn 14:13. The successors of Rabbi Yeshua’s own shlikhim have been sent by Rabbi Yeshua himself as our shepherds, to lead us. If they do not they will answer to him. In that case the heavenstorming prayer must come from the laity. “Ask, and it will be given you” Mt 7:7.
Rabbi Yeshua has already done his part. If we become a radically transformed audience willing to follow him all the way to the Cross, he will give us our Resurrection. § 677.
St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, Poland, interior
(St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, Poland)