THE Middle Ages were not all that far behind last week when the chief communist commissar of Poland, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, arrived in Rome, went to the Vatican, and was received in private audience by the Pontifex Maximum of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope. The very act was an admission that the general will never be accepted by the Polish people as their rightful leader unless he can obtain the confirmation of the Pope in Rome.
The general heads the official machinery of the Polish state. He came to Rome for many things. He hoped for credits to finance new industries and economic activities. He needs the technology that Italy can provide, but above all he needs the willing cooperation of the Polish people, which he has never been able to obtain by his own efforts, but which Pope John Paul II could give him.
Back in the Middle Ages no crown in all Europe was valid unless granted by the Pope.
Even into modern times Napoleon brought the Pope to Paris to preside at his own coronation as emperor.
Poland is a fervently and devoutly Catholic country. The Pope is from Poland and trusted by the overwhelming majority of the Polish people to do what is best for them. Partly because he is a Pole and partly because he is the Pope, he could grant to General Jaruzelski a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the Polish people which otherwise he could never have. He was placed in authority in Poland by the Soviets. He could become a Polish national figure - if only the Pope would so testify.
But at what price?
The staging of the visit was careful.
The Swiss guards were out in splendor. The general was given the formalities of a head of government. But he was received by the Pope only in ``private audience.'' It lasted 70 minutes. This was said by Vatican officials to be the longest ``private'' audience in memory. But it was private, hence not ``official.'' It did not convey the implication and overtone that an official visit and a papal blessing would have conveyed in the minds of the Polish people. And it did not lead to establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Polish government.
One wonders whether it can ever come. General Jaruzelski can act only within the limits of Soviet tolerance. Were he a free agent he could ask for the equivalent in modern terms of a crown bestowed by the Pope. As he climbed the stairs to the audience hall in the Vatican last week he must have heard the echo of footsteps from the distant past as earlier European magnates came to Rome to petition for that grant of legitimacy which made it possible for them to rule.
But General Jaruzelski is not a free agent. His commission was signed in the Kremlin, not in the Vatican. Can the Kremlin grant him enough leeway to permit the Pope in turn to grant full diplomatic recognition to the Jaruzelski regime? We may be sure that in Moscow as well as in Warsaw and the Vatican the experts are most diligently studying the terms of a possible agreement. The time is probably a long way off when General Jaruzelski could ask the Vatican to grant him the modern equivalent of the crown of Poland.
The immediate question is to what extent the Pope will use his good offices in the Western world to obtain grants, loans, and technical equipment needed to try to modernize and revitalize the sagging economy of Poland, and to what extent he will urge the Polish people to abandon what has in effect been a work slowdown ever since the suppression of the Solidarity movement.
Poland's economy is in a miserable condition, partly because of Stalinist-type economic mismanagement, but partly also because the Polish people are in a state of conflict with the government. The Pope's leverage can be decisive.
If the state will cease interfering with the church, will in effect give the church a free hand to act and think and to lead the Polish people, then Poland could probably achieve the level of economic revival which Hungary has gained.
The Pope himself identified his meeting with the general from Warsaw as ``without doubt historic.''
It is indeed historic when a commissar from Eastern Europe journeys to Rome asking for help from the Vatican.