It was said that the (BEG ITAL)fin de siecle(END ITAL) Vienna of Freud and Wittgenstein was the little world in which the larger world had its rehearsals. In the late 1970s, the Poland of John Paul II and Lech Walesa was like that. The 20th century's worst political invention was totalitarianism, a tenet of which is that the masses must not be allowed to mass: Totalitarianism is a mortar and pestle for grinding society into a dust of individuals. Small wonder, then, that Poland's ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, visibly trembled in the presence of the priest who brought Poland to its feet in the face of tyranny by first bringing Poland to its knees in his presence.
John Paul II almost did not live to see this glorious consummation. In 1981 three of the world's largest figures -- Ronald Reagan, Anwar Sadat and John Paul II -- were shot. History would have taken an altered course if Sadat had not been the only one killed.
Our age celebrates the watery toleration preached by people for whom ``judgmental'' is an epithet denoting an intolerable moral confidence. John Paul II bristled with judgments, including this: The inevitability of progress is a myth, hence the certainty that mankind is wiser today than yesterday is chimeric.
Secular Europe is, however, wiser because of a man who worked at an altar. Europeans have been plied and belabored by various historicisms purporting to show that individuals are nullities governed by vast impersonal forces. Beginning in 1978, Europeans saw one man seize history by the lapels and shake it.
One of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown detective stories includes this passage: ``'I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humor, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.' 'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown.''
A poet made the same point: ``A flame rescued from dry wood has no weight in its luminous flight yet lifts the heavy lid of night.'' The poet became John Paul II.