They were an unlikely political "trinity" -- Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States who came from the Disciples of Christ Church; Margaret Thatcher, whose background was lower-class Methodist; and Karol Wojtyla, the Roman Catholic priest from Krakow, Poland. Together, they did something no one thought possible: They contributed to the collapse of communism, a political pestilence of the 20th century.
Even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged as much when he told Italy's La Stampa newspaper in 1992: "What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this pope."
The beginning of the end for communism started in the pope's native Poland. It was June, 1979, and the relatively new pope traveled to Poland for a nine-day visit. In more than 40 sermons, addresses, lectures and extemporaneous remarks, the pope fired a shot at communism's weakest link, telling his fellow Poles they were not who their rulers said they were and reminding them of their true identity.
He spoke of Poland's real history and culture, which had been oppressed and rewritten by the communists. He launched a "revolution of conscience" which, 14 months later, gave birth to the Solidarity movement. Solidarity produced a groundswell of fearlessness and a hunger for freedom that the communist leaders could neither suppress nor reach. Commenting on the pope's 1979 visit (subsequent trips in 1983 and 1987 sealed the deal), Polish dictator Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski said, "That was the detonator."
Solidarity's leader Lech Walesa credited the pope with giving Poles the courage to rise up. "The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism," Walesa said. "Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. He simply said, 'Don't be afraid, change the image of this land.'"
While the pope was about liberating millions from the yoke of communism, he also reined in the "liberation theology" that had undercut fundamental church teachings. This orthodox theological revolution not only had influence in Third World countries (many of which he visited), it also resonated in American domestic politics.
The Vatican and some American church leaders, such as the late New York Cardinal John O'Connor, suggested that Roman Catholic politicians might face excommunication if they did not conform to church teaching on abortion (a threat that never materialized). The pope replaced theologically squishy priests and bishops with those who believed as he did.
Perhaps the most famous "casualty" of his realignment was the forced retirement from Congress of the theologically and politically liberal Democrat Robert Drinan. The pope simply declared priests may not hold high public office, and Drinan's political career abruptly ended.
In Cuba, the pope tried applying the strategy he used in Poland. During a five-day visit in January, 1998, he did not once mention the Fidel Castro regime. Instead, he reintroduced Cubans to their own history from a Christian perspective. His goal, as in Poland, was to reconnect people with their authentic history and culture, which he believed had been stolen from them by Castro's communist regime. When Cuban communism falls, many will also credit this pope for giving it a push.
That applies not only to communist and other dictatorial regimes, but also to "free" people whose gods are materialism and pleasure, leading to insensitivity for the poor and needy.
The legacy of Pope John Paul II is assured. He was a man dedicated to political, economic and spiritual freedom for all. The shoes of this "fisherman" will be hard to fill.
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