“It was in the darkest days of Nazi rule that the future pope resolved to dedicate his life to bringing the light of Christ into the world. He committed himself to study the faith, and then used his awesome spiritual authority to preach the truth, defend freedom, and help bring down communism. This is how he helped set millions of people free.”
Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. He grew up under first communist, then Nazi rule. As such, he knew first hand what it was to live under repressive totalitarian regimes – and how faith could shine a light even in the darkest of places.
Even so, when his fellow cardinals elected him as their Pope in 1978, he understood that simply denouncing the evils of totalitarianism was not an option.
Wojtyła had risen through the ranks of the church, first as a priest, then a bishop, then archbishop, and finally a cardinal, serving his community as they struggled to keep the flame of faith alight in communist Poland. Under their totalitarian rule, religion was frowned upon. New churches were sorely needed, but to build one, parishes had to gain a permit from the authorities, and those permits were hard to come by.
Those who faced down the authorities in anger were met with harsh punishments. Often they were dealt long jail sentences to serve as an example to others who were considering non-compliance. Wojtyła knew that he could not serve his flock adequately from the confines of a jail cell, so he sought to find another way to oppose the regime.
It was at the darkest time of year, Christmas, that he found a way to let the light shine. He began to hold midnight Christmas masses under the cold open skies in one neighborhood that had no church to meet in. Year after year he did the same, until, finally, the authorities relented and allowed the Ark Church to be built. People came from all over Poland to help build it.
Wojtyła remembered this lesson when he rose to become Pope. He dearly wanted to help his followers living under totalitarian rule find freedom, but he knew that angry words and threats would only bring more persecution for Christians living in those places. Instead, he found another way.
He began to preach religious freedom for all, not just those living under totalitarianism, so that his words couldn’t be said to be singling out any one government or regime.
But it was the Polish shipyard workers strike that gave John Paul II his greatest opportunity to push for change. Inspired by a visit by John Paul II to Poland, the shipyard workers began to rise up. Led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, the workers began to strike. Walesa’s pastor, Father Henryk Jankowski, held a mass attended by 4,000 workers inside the shipyard, their friends and family standing outside the yard on the other side of the gate, and the carpenters built a giant wooden cross. The strikers formed a union, then a movement, and called it ‘Solidarity’.
John Paul II gave his blessing to Solidarity; when its leaders, including Walesa, visited Rome in January 1981, he gave them a private audience and indicated his support for their movement. This further encouraged Solidarity, and their movement grew.
So much so that the authorities fought back. They arrested Walesa and his fellow workers. But a light had already been kindled, and it would not be so easily extinguished. People around the world began to put lit candles in their windows as a sign of support for Solidarity – and one appeared in the Pope’s window too.
It took patience, persistence, and courage, but in time, those little candles won out. The darkness of totalitarianism was banished from Poland and the rest of the Soviet bloc. Along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II had held firm to the Christian values that the West was founded upon. Their examples and strong leadership at a time of great uncertainty made all the difference in the world, ending the Cold War once and for all.
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