WHEN John Paul II became pope in 1978, the Polish communist authorities stated begrudgingly they hoped the former Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow would help foster cooperation between the "two ideologies, Marxism and Christianity." Then they proceeded in every way possible to limit the pope's access to Poland. Needless to say, the strategy failed. The pope's visit to his homeland in 1979 was a watershed - setting in motion forces that led to the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa, and, arguably, the eventual fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
John Paul symbolized to his cheering fellow compatriots another system, another reality - one that didn't "cooperate" with but finally subverted Marxism.
This week the pope is back in Poland for the first time since the communists were voted out of power. The trip is generally regarded as both a celebration of liberated Eastern Europe, and an opening for the pope to the millions of Roman Catholics in the Soviet republics, including the Baltics and the Ukraine. John Paul visits Moscow in 1993.
Yet the trip also has its frustrations for the pope. Having helped unleash the forces of democracy, he now finds many of those forces at work in his own church. There are increasing questions from Poles, questions American Catholics have been asking for years, about the pope's unyielding position on abortion and contraception. A strong majority of Poles disagree with the church's stand against these two practices. Church authorities also say too many Solidarity activists aren't working closely enough wi t
h them, implying that closer relations are owed the church for its role in liberating Poland.
The pope has been an important religious force. What seems clear, however, is that even in Poland and the Soviet Union, his church must exist in a system of increasing diversity, plurality, and choice. Many churches and faiths and peoples - evangelicals, orthodox, questioning atheists - helped end Marxism in 1989.
How John Paul - often characterized as a conservative, even a medievalist - works to retain the church's authority in an increasingly open environment will be interesting to watch.