It was a two week hurricane that changed my life forever, my first visit to Poland in June 1991. Looking back, I remember something HL Mencken wrote about a similarly transformative experience: “It was mind-boggling” and bone-breaking, but it was Incomparably great – an adventure from the very beginning, a razzle-blender great and elegant, a circus in forty rings. ”My first weeks in Poland were all that and more. For what I learned in dozens of conversations during these fortnight became the core of the last revolution: the resistance church and the collapse of communism; the publication of this book (the first to argue that John Paul II and the Church played a key role in the collapse of European communism) led to my first serious conversation with the Polish Pope; our relationship matured over the next several years to the point where in 1995 I rather boldly suggested that John Paul write his biography; and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the past three decades, I have spent a total of about three years in Poland, most of them in Krakow, a city that I now consider almost like a different home. On this anniversary, however, my mind wandered to some extraordinary people I first met in June 1991. Many are no longer with us, but I remember them because their contribution to my education in Polish affairs was unpredictable.
I think of the former Solidarnosc activists, many of them political prisoners of war who were then members of the Polish government, influential journalists or academics who were finally able to teach what they believed was right in a free society.
I remember Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, a man of great natural dignity who was cleverly elected by John Paul II to succeed him in the Krakow See. For his part, Macharski had the common sense not to try to be Karol Wojtyła 2.0, but to be himself – which was more than enough, as he showed courage and courage when Poland suffered under martial law in the 1980s. It was Macharski who told me about the tradition that the Archbishop of Krakow is the Defensor Civitatis, the last line of defense of the people and their rights. Like his predecessor, Franciszek Macharski lived this episcopal role excellently, as did the wartime archbishop whom he and Karol Wojtyła venerated, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha.
I think of Jerzy Turowicz, a charming fairy seventies who for decades ran the only reliable newspaper in Poland, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly) under the protection of the Archdiocese of Krakow. Its editorial team was made up of brilliant men and women who could not get the academic and professional positions they were qualified for because they were serious Catholics. And in his pages a future Pope has grinded his literary teeth as a poet and essayist.
I remember Father Jozef Tischner, a stubborn, affectionate son of the Polish highlands, a great joke-teller and world-class philosopher. His brilliant sermon on September 6, 1981 at the First Solidarity Congress – a meditation on work and the Eucharist – should be included in the prayer of the hours as the second selection of the reading office in memory of St. Joseph the Worker.
I remember visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time and praying in front of the hunger cell in which St. Maximilian Kolbe gave his life for a fellow prisoner – and she, like the 12th station of the Cross in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, found the easiest places in the world to pray.
I remember a long conversation on Sunday afternoon with Father Kazimierz Jancarz, who looked like an NFL linebacker, ridiculed himself for “just a proletarian” and then explained to me that his parish church in the industrial town of Nowa Huta had been an underground center Resistance activities during and after martial law – a place where people spoke freely about a future they could only imagine, but for which they wanted to be trained and prepared.
All of this would not have been possible without the help of my colleague and friend Rodger Potocki who was the best traveling companion, a knowledgeable guide and the man who made me read out all the street signs we passed so I could at least know how to Polish (more or less) pronounce correctly.
Three decades of work and conversations in Poland have shaped me in a way that I would not have thought possible 30 years ago. For this I am deeply grateful to a nation that could perhaps become a model for 21st century democracy if it takes the social doctrine of its greatest son seriously.
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