Poland looks to Pope John Paul II with new eyes as Russia stirs

The late pope, who was canonized today, is remembered in Poland as an architect of the fall of communism – a role of new significance in light of the Kremlin's increasing assertiveness.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Sister Sancja readies the altar in God’s Mercy sanctuary in Krakow, Poland, on Sunday, April 27, 2014, for ceremonies of canonization of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. Thousands of faithful flocked to the sanctuary to watch live from the Vatican as Pope Francis led an unprecedented ceremony.

Poland has, since the fall of communism, become a more secular country – to the point that lawmakers have been divided over whether to grant a parliamentary declaration to Pope John Paul II, who was canonized today at the Vatican.

But even as secular forces push for a greater separation of church and state in this still deeply Catholic country, no one denies the fundamental role the Polish-born pontiff played as Poland emerged from Soviet occupation.

And his canonization comes at a time when Poland is once again looking warily at a resurgent Russia, which is engaged in a political game in Ukraine that has prompted uncomfortable parallels with the cold war. Poles sit at the forefront of demanding a tough response from the West to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today offers a reminder of how Poland arrived at its position in 2014 as a democratic nation firmly embedded in the European Union.

“People listened to him, even those who didn't believe in God. He gave us power and hope, he was a symbol of freedom,” says Paulina Jelen, a middle-aged resident of Warsaw. Ms. Jelen remembers that during the cold war, her mother worked for the state telecommunications company, which communist authorities used to jam the broadcasts of papal visits.

“During pastoral visits to Poland he gave people power and a lot of energy. He talked so many times about responsibility and dignity, and people realized that Communists took these away from them,” says Maciej Zieba, a Polish Dominican priest who was a good friend of John Paul II.

The sainthood ceremony is part of an unprecedented, and controversial, double canonization overseen by Pope Francis – himself a wildly popular leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII, who served from 1958 to 1963, is known as the “good pope” who attempted to adapt the church to modern realities by calling the Second Vatican Council. And Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 450 years and who sat from 1978 to his death in 2005, was adored by the masses as he traveled the globe.

The double canonization of these two popes has raised eyebrows for, among other things, going against age-old protocol. It is seen by some as an effort by Pope Francis to bridge the liberal and conservative factions within the Roman Catholic Church. An estimated 800,000 people attended today's ceremony in Rome. 

But in Poland, the legacy of Pope John Paul is as much about national politics as the transcendence of Catholic faith. He is widely credited with helping to end communism here: When he was elected, the lights stayed on all night in the headquarters of the Communist party in Warsaw, historians recount, as they knew that the new pope spelled trouble. From his steadfast support of the Solidarity trade union, which formed the base of the protest movement, to his unifying power as a leader, he helped the nation fight against Soviet forces. 

“The Catholic Church had real power in Poland during Communist times and was a real opposition,” says Antoni Dudek, a historian and author of several books on Polish Communists and the Catholic Church.

The new Eastern Europe

A generation later, Poles – and the world at large – are reminded of those historic struggles, as they question whether Russia today, post-Communism, has abandoned efforts to integrate with the West, as evinced by Mr. Putin's recent annexation of Crimea. Poland, a NATO member, has been a leading voice in foreign policy to bring former Soviet satellite countries, including Ukraine, closer to the EU.

Poles are no longer afraid of a Russian invasion as they were during the Soviet era. Still, mistrust of Putin's Russia is rampant. In an opinion poll in April, 80 percent of respondents said that Poland should be afraid of Russia. In an earlier poll in March, 59 percent of those surveyed said they believe Russia's foreign policy presents a threat to Poland's security. 

Poland isn’t alone. Russia, and the Western response to Putin, have echoes of cold war power struggles that have put Eastern European nations ill at ease. American forces arrived this week in Eastern and central Europe, including in Poland, for military training exercises, in a show of power against Russia.

The Roman Catholic Church plays little role in this crisis for various reasons. It wields much less power today in Poland, evidenced by the brouhaha over a political declaration for the pope in parliament. Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox. And Russia is no longer atheist. Indeed, Putin has courted the Russian Orthodox Church. “There has been a need for some unifying ideology” in Russia, says Mark Elliot, the editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, and an expert on Russia and Ukrainian religion. 

But people on the streets of Warsaw say events today make them appreciate how far they’ve come – and the role the pope, and church, played in that. Now, says Mr. Dudek, Poles better appreciate what "the Polish road to democracy looked like, especially when they see what is happening in Ukraine.”

“In the '80s, almost everybody thought that Europe would be divided in two blocs forever, he was the only one who [spoke about] European unity and a false division of the continent,” says Father Zieba. “But, I think we will need more time and distance to appreciate what John Paul II did for Poland and our part of Europe."

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