- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

When Karol Wojtya was a young priest, assigned to a university chaplaincy in Krakw in the early 1950s, he used to lead a close group of students and friends on excursions into the Polish countryside. Summer days were spent hiking or kayaking. In winter, they would ski. Fr. Wojtya would say Mass for the group, sometimes using an overturned kayak as a makeshift altar.

These excursions were not only enjoyable recreation, they were a chance for the future Pope John Paul II to get to know the young men and women entrusted to his pastoral care—their hopes and dreams, their struggles and fears. Life-long friendships were forged on those excursions, and the young Wojtya was as much shaped by these outings as were the students and young families that accompanied him.

As it happens, these seemingly innocent trips were also illegal. On these trips, Wojtya wore ordinary clothes instead of the cassock and Roman collar that would identify him as a Catholic priest. His friends all called him Wujek—”Uncle”—to avoid arousing suspicion.

The Communists didn’t take kindly to meddlesome priests forming the minds and shaping the character of the young. Meetings between priests and groups of young people were forbidden, and not just because of the strict, ideological atheism of the regime.

What we might call “free association” was an affront to the totalitarian State. Even little communities like Wojtya’s were seen as rivals to state power. By creating and enjoying free spaces outside the purview of the state—a space filled with the bonds of friendship, love, and a shared heritage and faith— Wojtya and his friends exposed the cracks in the ideological foundation of the Communist regime.

The Communists saw the human person as “an element, a molecule within the social organism,” as Pope John Paul II wrote in 1991. The result was that, “the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” A cog in a machine; that’s what Soviet man was, nothing more.

Wojtya wanted his friends to know they were so much more. And not just to know it, but to experience the freedom that comes from living in the truth. So he and his friends did just that. They resisted the lie with the truth. They formed little associations in which love and friendship made possible the kind of authentic solidarity of which the Socialist tyranny could hardly dream, and of which the dictatorship of the proletariat was only a crude mockery.

Wojtya’s little group and their trips were subversive; he knew it. The Communists knew it, too, though not well enough. And the world would come to know it in a dramatic way in the years to come.

On June 2, 1979, Pope John Paul II—the first Slavic pope in history—stepped onto the tarmac at Warsaw’s Okcie Airport. As historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote, “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland—and ultimately everywhere else in Europe—would come to an end.”

Without touching “third-rail” issues of politics or economics, Pope John Paul II spoke to his fellow Poles about something much more powerful. He reminded his countrymen of who they were—as Poles, as Christians, as human beings made for freedom and truth.

During his nine days in Poland that summer, the Polish Pope stirred up in the hearts of his countrymen a sense of dignity and vocation that came not from worldly powers but from a source much deeper and to a calling much higher: a love for Polish history and culture and for the Catholic faith that remains its hallmark.

The moral revolution sparked by John Paul II’s visit in 1979, and fanned into a flame by the Solidarity movement, hastened the collapse of European Communism a decade later. The greater miracle, perhaps, is that a victory so great over an opponent so determined, was won with so little bloodshed.

The great themes of John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 were the same themes he had explored—and lived—with friends almost three decades before: kayaking with students, sharing a laugh with married friends around a campfire, and praying together at the end of a long day’s hike. Those friendships helped make Karol Wojtya into the Pope he would become, and helped him remind, not just his fellow Poles but the whole world, of the true Source of our dignity and calling.

• Stephen P. White is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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