Many things are happening in Rome in these extraordinary days – days in which, in an unprecedented way, two popes will be present as two earlier popes are named saints of the Roman Catholic Church. But perhaps no event, so far, has been more remarkable than the one Friday evening at which Lech Walesa – electrician, leader of Polish Solidarity, ally of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and, after the defeat of Communism, president of Poland – pronounced these words.
In a variety of ways, of course, the canonization of these two great saints, John XXIII and John Paul II, are purely internal Catholic matters. A canonization says, with apostolic authority, that the Church recognizes that the heroic holiness of a person and certain signs since that person’s death (usually two miracles), indicate that a soul now enjoys the unending and perfect vision of God in Heaven.
That’s already a great deal, an infinite deal. And anything that might be said about a newly recognized saint is a negligible triviality by comparison. Still, we very imperfect beings, living in this still far from perfect earthly existence, have to pay homage to the people who have deeply affected our lives for the good. And there is no recent public moral tale more significant in its large-scale contours than the way that Pope John Paul II helped put an end to the murderous Enlightenment conspiracy that we call Communism.
Walesa spoke at a dinner organized by a friend of this site – Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax. He was not merely reviewing a historical episode in a detached or nostalgic mode. Walesa clearly wanted to convince – and inspire – those present with a bit of that JPII spirit that has had such incalculable effects on our world.
It’s not clear how well Walesa understands the current reality of the West. But one of the other things that he said cannot help but echo within those of us who are aware of what’s happening to our old Western tradition.
He reminded everyone that Poland in the days of the Warsaw pact had 200,000 Russian soldiers within its borders. Another 1 million Soviet troops stood close by – and the USSR had thousands of nuclear weapons. But the balance of forces could not be computed by merely physical means, said Walesa. Another dynamic emerged with the Polish labor union Solidarity, and above all with the election of the Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla.
JPII’s story is probably well enough known to readers of this site that it doesn’t need repeating in very great detail. But perhaps it’s worth mentioning something that is less known about the Walesa/Wojtyla era.
As the former Polish president tells it now, prior to the election of John Paul, dissident Poles felt – and had been often told by the Communist regime – that they were isolated. They were, allegedly and even in their own estimation, a minority within a country that had long ago accepted the tyranny of a modern state. Even those inclined, for Catholic and simply human notions of freedom, to believe that there must be found something more in accord with our nature in the public realm basically accepted the Communist lie.
With the election of John Paul II, and the tremendous outpouring of authentic solidarity to which it gave rise, all that was reversed. Within a remarkably short time, Polish Catholics and other friends of human dignity came to understand that they were not an isolated, tiny minority. It was the Communist oppressors who were isolated and a minority, despite the appearance of domination.
It has been twenty-five years, a quarter century, since this great moral drama played itself out. For those who are young or historical innocents, it may seem that this story is part of a past that is far behind us. As our still young president likes to argue, all of that is not a “twenty-first century” way of understanding things.
But among the many things that both John XXIII and John Paul II might remind us of this weekend is precisely this: the greatest of public moral stories in our age has largely been ignored in our usual histories.
Other speakers came after Walesa. Newt Gingrich from the Republicans, who choked up remembering the great days. Ambassador Ray Flynn, an Irish Democrat from Boston, former ambassador to the Holy See, who enunciated a principle too little heard among Catholics of any stripe these days: we are Catholics and Christians first, members of political parties a distant second.
It may be that Christendom – the old religious and political configuration of our world – has passed on forever. It may be that some seemingly unlikely people in Asia or Africa may soon inhabit the global leadership that once was ours.
But we believe in freedom not fate. Spending these days with the few remaining members of that great generation might encourage even the most world-weary among us to reflect. All the merely practical indicators may seem against us. The steady moral decline of our Western culture might seem irreversible.
But so it might have seemed in the darkest days of Communist domination. As Charles Peguy said, tyranny is always better organized than freedom. Which is why we have to redouble our efforts.
We are not without patrons on earth or in heaven. One once told us: “Be not afraid.” And from that direct and simple courage things flowed that no one anticipated. And might still today, if we would only hear.