BERLIN - Karol Wojtyla became a priest in 1946, just as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe. The inspiration he provided as Pope John Paul II helped to tear it down.
Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in Poland in 1989-1990, recalled the power of Pope John Paul's visit to Warsaw in 1979. It was the first to his homeland after becoming pope a year earlier, and he ended Mass with a prayer for the Holy Spirit to "renew the face of the Earth," words that became a rallying cry.
"We know what the pope has achieved. Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing," Walesa said yesterday. "More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organize 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations.
"Earlier we tried, I tried, and we couldn't do it. These are facts. Of course, communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way. He was a gift from the heavens to us."
The pope's role in the fight against communism was largely symbolic and moral.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had once disparaged the influence of an earlier pope, as reported by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: "The pope! How many divisions has he got?" Yet Pope John Paul turned out to have forces at his disposal beyond the imagination of the communists who ruled Poland after Soviet troops occupied the country at the end of World War II.
Originally, the Polish secret police were not worried at Wojtyla's promotion to archbishop of Krakow in 1963, considering him a poet and apolitical dreamer.
His coronation as pope was different. The fact that a Pole, from an eastern Europe penned behind barbed wire, could become the most prominent religious figure in the West was immensely powerful, said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia and the Soviet Union at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
"For many Poles, it was the fact that one of their own made it in the West, which was closed at the time for Poland, made it to the top of the Catholic Church and played a political and moral role as one of the leaders in the world," said Rahr. "That mattered. It mattered politically; it mattered as a moral matter."
Pictures of Pope John Paul giving his blessing or Holy Communion to a kneeling Walesa, himself a churchgoing Catholic, did much to undermine Poland's atheist regime. And the strong Catholic element in Solidarity helped make it a nonviolent movement, though its miners and factory workers could have purloined all the explosives they needed if terrorism had been their choice.
Pope John Paul did not call for an open uprising against communism, and seemed to have a kind of rapport with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish leader who imposed martial law in 1981 in a vain attempt to suppress Solidarity. Some think Jaruzelski's move saved restive Poland from a catastrophic Soviet invasion.
A few years later, a reform-minded Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev gave the long-suffering Poles their chance. Strikes in Gdansk in late 1988 forced the government into bargaining with the opposition in February 1989. The crumbling of party authority gathered speed and spread to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria.
Poles say the pope's charismatic visits and Masses let people feel their collective power in defying the authorities.
Anna Bohdziewicz, who helped distribute underground books around the time of the pope's first visit to Poland, recalled the electrifying feeling in the huge crowd that formed even the day before the pope arrived, among people walking to Victory Square in Warsaw where he was to speak, and later during his Masses.
The pope gave people confidence a peaceful struggle was not a pipe dream, said Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity activist and Poland's first democratically elected prime minister after the fall of communism.
During that 1979 visit, "society felt its strength and saw that it was able to organize itself against the existing system - and especially toward a peaceful fight," Mazowiecki said.
"This is what the pope always taught us. When martial law was implemented, the pope never gave up. He constantly spoke about Solidarity - about holding it up and keeping it alive."
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times