A Pope Probing the Iron Curtain: John Paul II Goes Home to Poland

Tad Szulc is on assignment in Warsaw for the National Geographic.

When John Paul II arrives here Monday for his pontifical visit to Poland, his eyes will also focus east, on Lithuania, the Ukraine and Moscow itself. The Polish Pope has long hoped for an ecumenical--and political--breakthrough in the Vatican's relations with the Soviet Union; he thinks that General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's new "openness" policies may provide the opportunity for a historic chain of events.

Exact objectives are never directly spelled out by subtle Vatican officials but Poland is the natural platform for a jump eastward. Poland is Karol Wojtyla's native land, the only communist nation he--or any other Pope--has ever been invited to visit. During his week-long sojourn he will be speaking from Polish pulpits as Slav to uncounted millions of other Slavs, from Warsaw to the Urals.

Pragmatically but quietly, the Vatican was exploring possible relations with the atheist Soviets as early as the reign of Pope Pius XI in the 1930s. But today there are favorable new conditions for some form of mutual understanding.

For one thing, the Vatican's relationship with the Polish government is now unusually good. While John Paul II had enthusiastically supported the explosive emergence of the Solidarity independent trade union movement in 1980, he has come to terms with current reality: The military communist regime that destroyed Solidarity 18 months after its birth is in control. The church has joined Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in urging a national reconciliation that would include what is left of the movement; and while the regime rejects reconciliation, other positive steps have been taken.

All political prisoners were released under a full amnesty last September. Then Polish head of state Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski went to Rome in January for talks with the Pope on a range of religious and political issues (they first met in 1983, when the pontiff toured Poland after the military lifted martial law and released Walesa). The recent Rome meeting set up this new papal visit, John Paul II's third return home since his 1978 election, and it may open the way for full-fledged Poland-Vatican diplomatic relations.

The expectations here are that such ties will be formalized quite soon, and Poland will accept a long-standing Vatican demand for recognition of the Polish Roman Catholic Church as a "juridical person" under the nation's laws. This would elevate the church's standing--from tolerance to official acceptance, an unprecedented recognition in a communist country. Even Cuba, one of the few communist states maintaining full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, does not grant its church such status.

Meanwhile, the Polish church hierarchy, led by Jozef Cardinal Glemp, has been clearly avoiding political confrontation with the Jaruzelski regime. This disappoints the radical younger clergy but it does promote something of a de facto partnership with the ruling regime, to build a political pluralism that, in reality, is developing in Poland.

In this context, the Pope regards Poland as a stepping stone in the Vatican's new Ostpolitik and significant religious anniversaries lie ahead in Eastern Europe to justify further advances:

On June 28, two weeks after the Pope's visit to Poland, the sixth century of Roman Catholicism will be commemorated in Lithuania, next door. Lithuania was part of Poland; now it is a Soviet republic but also a Roman Catholic outpost in the Orthodox Rite tradition of Russian Christianity. John Paul II had wanted to attend the anniversary festivities in Vilna, the cradle of Polish national heroes, but Gorbachev quietly dissuaded him; a papal visit to Catholic, largely Polish-speaking Lithuania might prove too much of a risk.

Next year marks the first millennium of Christianity in Russia (Poland has been Christian much longer), and, again, the Pope is reported to have privately indicated a desire to be invited to Moscow. That would have been a fantastic coup for Vatican diplomacy but, just as gently, Gorbachev resisted. He is evidently not prepared to let Soviet atheism be so undermined; "glasnost" or not, as recently as last November, Gorbachev publicly urged that "atheist propaganda be strengthened."

To be sure, Gorbachev's problem is not confined to Roman Catholicism. Concessions to any religion could be seen as a precedent by the Soviet Union's millions of Muslims. The Russians are already trying to quell serious demographic and political tensions among ethnic and religious minorities--as last year's riot in Kazakhstan proved.

Gorbachev must balance his domestic problems against fascinating possibilities offered by papal diplomacy. Except for hard-line Czechoslovakia, communist leaders in Eastern Europe--most notably in Poland and Hungary--have been warming toward Christian churches and the Vatican because amelioration is helpful in defusing domestic opposition.

For the Soviets, the options are narrower, but--under Gorbachev-- not non-existent. The regime supports the "official" Russian Orthodox hierarchy but has recently released such political dissident priests as Gleb Yakunin and Alexander Ogorodnikov from prison; both men have been outspoken advocates of freedom of religion and human rights. And now the government acknowledges a wide religious revival among the young.

The Polish Pope observes all such developments and looks for dignified ways to increase Vatican influence east from Poland.

All this may take a long time, but the Vatican thinks in terms of centuries. For John Paul II, the first steps are crucial.

This time, unlike his last visit, the Pontiff will be free to celebrate Mass in the Baltic port of Gdansk. Seven years ago, Gdansk was where Walesa led nascent Solidarity to victory. Now, Polish Karol Wojtyla has a chance to amplify his voice, in Poland--and beyond.

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