THE Poland that Pope John Paul II visited this week is in many ways strikingly different from the Poland he visited in 1983 - or in 1979. Warsaw, while not yet completely turning around the nation's still plodding economy, has restored a large measure of domestic equilibrium. And it is this restoration of internal stability that holds out the promise of further gains for Poland, especially on the crucial economic front.
The Pope's visit and the gracious reception accorded him by the communist government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski have to be considered important, given the tensions of Eastern European politics. General Jaruzelski and the Pope entered into a lively discussion of human rights versus public order, with the Pope vigorously calling for a greater participation by the Polish people in the nation's affairs. But General Jaruzelski firmly held his own, pointing to the country's social stability and its overall renaissance within the East-bloc orbit. This was not the embarrassed, hesitant Jaruzelski of 1983, when the Pope lectured him for the government's crackdown on the banned Solidarity trade union movement.
If Poland is today a land more at peace with itself than four years ago, or in the late 1970s, that would have to stem in part from Jaruzelski's careful balancing act between East and West. The nation's leadership felt that it could not permit the type of freewheeling independent-union movement represented by Solidarity, lest an angry Moscow crack down directly on Warsaw - and Polish nationalism. On the other hand, the Jaruzelski government recognizes that economic progress is impossible without a partial loosening of the government's tight grip. Striking a balance between economic reform and communist party rule is essential for Jaruzelski and Polish independence from Moscow.
That Jaruzelski now feels he has, for the moment at least, reached such a balance was evident from his meeting with the Pope this week, which was more relaxed than their 1983 session.
At the same time, the visit is a reminder that if there is any unofficial opposition to the government in Poland today, it is from the Polish church. It is certainly not the underground Solidarity movement, whose leaders have been meeting with the Pontiff. Nor can any workable opposition be found elsewhere in Polish society - within the military, for example; within the industrial sector; or, certainly, within the government. In fact, many government hard-liners believe Jaruzelski is going too far in his moves toward economic reform. All this has put a special responsibility on local religious leaders, underscored by the Pope's call to the regime to be more supportive of human rights and individual liberties.
A final point: Whatever the reasons, it is interesting that this week finds the Polish-born Pope in Poland rather than in Italy, where the seven-nation economic summit is under way.
Italy is in the midst of a national election campaign. Summit leaders have a full agenda. By traveling to Poland this week, the Pope was able to speak to an issue of keen personal concern - Polish freedom - while at the same time staying at a distance from the full range of Western economic and political issues on the docket in Venice.