One man can make a difference: that is the lesson of the life of Pope John Paul II. If someone had told you, 50 years ago, that the three men who would do the most to advance human freedom in the next half century were the parish priest of St. Florian's Church in Krakow, the military cadet who was the grandson of the last king of Spain and the star of the recent movie "Bedtime for Bonzo," you would not have believed him. But so it has been. History takes surprising turns. And it is often individual men and women, for good and for evil, who do the steering.
They can steer in directions not widely anticipated. A half century ago, it seemed the world was moving toward ever more collectivism and centralization, toward ever greater secularism and skepticism: This was modernity, and Marx and Freud were its prophets. Experts at the top of hierarchical pyramids would determine the course of events. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes ruled most of the world's people, and in an age of nuclear weapons, no one could hope to change that. The best that could be wished for was a convergence of systems.
Karol Wojtyla thought something different. He was 19 when Nazi Germany overran his native Poland; through World War II he worked in a quarry and acted in clandestine illegal plays. He sheltered Jews and was once arrested by the Gestapo. Then, after the Red Army swept into Poland and installed a Communist government, he attended seminary and became a priest, a bishop and an archbishop. In the pulpit and out he called for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, implicitly rebuked a regime built on lies. Today, we can read about the millions of people murdered by Hitler and Stalin. Pope John Paul II lived under their rule, but kept his own mind and conscience free.
In 1978, when he was 58, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope; he had lived most of his life under totalitarian governance. This was the same year in which Juan Carlos I, groomed to be King of Spain by the dictator Franco, presided over free elections in Spain -- a transition to democracy that, as Michael Ledeen has written, inspired similar transitions in other parts of southern Europe and Latin America. And it was the same year that Ronald Reagan, past retirement age, was writing radio commentaries and preparing to run for the third time for president of the United States. This time he would win, and would put in place policies that did much to end the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes it supported.