VIENNA — IT turned out to be much more than a visit to another Warsaw Pact country, more than a notable extension of Ostpolitik. The pope's April mission to Czechoslovakia marked, in fact, the rounding off of a challenge to communism in Eastern Europe begun in Poland by Solidarity 10 years before.
And it opened a possibly portentous new phase of a Vatican drive for a united, Christian Europe, utopian as it might seem at this stage.
The Czechoslovak revolution will surely go into history as the most significant of last year's explosions of popular feeling that ended communist dominance through the region.
It is not just that, geographically, Czechoslovakia is at the region's heartland, but also because it has always epitomized a spiritual and cultural crossroads between East and West. Moreover, it is the one country where the recent assertion of democratic rule restored a genuine tradition well established before interventions first by Adolf Hitler and then by the communists.
But, from the start, the pope's mission in Czechoslovakia was destined to prove more important than anything before, including even the catalyst effects of his first momentous visit to Poland, his homeland.
There, in 1979, he sounded a first open challenge to Marxist rule from his new role as pope. To the local Communist leadership, he insisted on more than just a spiritual role for the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.
``It wishes,'' he said, ``to serve the people also in the temporal and social dimensions of their life and existence.''
For a decade, no opportunity existed in Czechoslovakia to mount such a claim. No wonder, then, that when it came, the pope hastened to exploit it. Once there, he drove his point home on a broader scale than ever before, calling for a fully democratic Eastern Europe as part of his wider concept of a politically and, above all, Christian, united Europe.
Czechoslovakia was an apt platform. Religious persecution there was much worse than in Poland or Hungary. In Prague, the ruthless bid to exclude Christian spirituality and moral influence entirely from national life continued to the very last.
The reversal of communism, the pope said, meant new opportunities - and new challenges - for the church to establish a unity, Christian and political, amid the historic diversities of the region and of Europe.
The pope's message had much in common with the calls from Vaclav Havel, Prague's new, intellectual president, urging Poland and Hungary and others who wish to join Czechoslovakia in a coordinated ``return to Europe.''
In Poland, given the church's special place, misgivings are already heard that a Polish government so dependent on the church might become a tool of clericalism or the ultra-conservative social ideas the pontiff espouses.
But now the pope was looking far beyond any of that, offering wider vision than that for which Ostpolitik initially stood for in Polish terms. He himself is probably no more sure than anyone of the shape of this ``new Europe'' (except as one in which, in his view, the word of God must have a central place). That is implicit in his planned European synod of bishops from East and West to explore and determine the church's own future in his united, Christian Europe.
Czechoslovakia's historic shrines are striking testaments to the fact that when Christianity was introduced into Europe 1,000 years ago it proved to be a politically positive, unifying force.
Catholic pope and lay president have a shared view of the necessity finally to lay aside the nationalisms that periodically and for long passages of history disrupted the process.
Will the next millennium usher in the kind of politically united and newly spiritual Europe they have in mind? As yet, the debate among politicians over what kind of Europe is to emerge from the recent upheavals is far from producing an answer.