The greatest churchman of modern times is dead; and the most Catholic nation in Europe is bereft. John Paul II, ‘Papa Wojtyla’ has passed on to a better life. His faithful compatriots must fend for themselves. Men and women weep without shame. Requiem services are celebrated every hour from dawn till midnight. Congregations spill out on to the street, kneeling on the paving stones. Thousands of candles flicker in their coloured-glass holders before makeshift shrines. Radio stations play sombre symphonies or take calls from distressed listeners. The TV channels which aren’t closed down flip endlessly between ‘St Peter’s Square — Live’ and long prepared films about the late Pope’s life. The presenters wear black. Supermarkets pipe the Mass over their address systems. Rival football supporters welcome each other to their stadiums for ceremonies of remembrance. This death was fully expected. But no one was ready. The British, wishing to understand such an outpouring of grief, could only recall the fully unexpected death of Diana.
Twenty-six years ago Poland was in chains. The political murders, mass deportations and repressive terror of the Stalinist decades had given way to a less brutal but no less absolute form of communist dictatorship. Public dissent was minimal. Poland’s best friend, Hungary, had paid in 1956 with perhaps 100,000 lives for raising the standard of revolt. Poland’s neighbour, Czechoslovakia, had been ‘normalised’, and turned into a miserable dungeon, for daring to talk of ‘socialism with a human face’.
Then out of the blue, like manna from Heaven, dropped the world’s first Slavonic pope. He did not waste words condemning the communist system or the iniquities of Soviet domination. He spoke of Truth, Mercy, Justice, Compassion and, above all, Love. During his first visit to Poland in June 1979 John Paul II attracted millions who heard him say innocent things such as, ‘Fear not, the Lord is with you!’ or ‘Come down, Holy Spirit, and change the face of this land.’ As a result, the Soviet Bloc was irreparably holed beneath the waterline. The communist leaders were helpless. They would probably have survived a nuclear attack. But they could not resist a barrage of good will and simple truths. The Solidarity movement took heart and showed others what could be done. Its leader, Lech Walesa, was a simple worker and a devoted disciple of the Pope. Before it was crushed by tanks, his free trade union had broken the psychological mould. Not even Gorbachev could save the sinking ship. Within a decade, the Berlin Wall had fallen.
By Polish standards, the Pope was far from being counted among the conservatives. He was deeply attached to traditional devotions, and to the Marian cult. At the same time, as a professor, philosopher, poet and writer, he belonged to the open-minded, intellectual wing of the Church. He long supported the Tygodnik Powszechny, Krakow’s liberal Catholic weekly, which many opponents in the hierarchy viewed with deep suspicion. As one of the activists of the Second Vatican Council, he can hardly be thought of as a reactionary or a ‘mediaevalist’. It is important to remember that John Paul II was not an American or a Frenchman.
The last years of fading communism provided an ideal environment for Poland’s Catholic Church, which acted as an umbrella for dissenters of all sorts. Though a handful of Solidarity leaders such as Father Popieluszko were killed, the system was losing the will to defend itself. With a Polish pope at the helm, the Church enjoyed enormous prestige: recurrent papal visits fuelled the determination to resist; high attendance at Mass inspired a wave of church-building, often in exotic modern styles; and in due course, facing collapse, the communists recognised the opposition and in 1989 proposed a system of power-sharing.
One might have expected that the triumph of Solidarity and of the Church would be total. In the event, neither of them adapted well to the changed circumstances. A deep rift emerged in the ranks of Solidarity even before the long-ruling Communist party (PZPR) had formally shut down. One group headed by Walesa, who captured the presidency, wanted to take a tough line against the former communist apparatus and secret police. Another, headed by Adam Michnik, who became Poland’s leading newspaper editor, worked to limit what they wrongheadedly called a ‘witch hunt’. The result was a long-running political crisis, which did not prevent the dismantling of communist economic structures, but which complicated the emergence of a viable democracy. In 1995 Walesa was surprisingly but fairly defeated by an ex-communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was one of the creators of a left-leaning, post-communist and distinctly non-Catholic ‘Social Democratic Alliance’. It was to be President Kwasniewski, not Walesa, who was to lead Poland into Nato and in 2004 into the European Union.
Many people thought the Catholic interest had only itself to blame. The Pope intervened sparingly, in the matter of paedophile priests, for instance, or later over the threat of an ultra-Catholic vote against entering the EU. But, generally speaking, he left his compatriots to make their own mistakes. The hierarchy failed to take a firm lead, except in the continuing mania for church-building. The Primate supported the project for a new basilica which is designed to dwarf St Peter’s. The paternalistic style, which had felt good in communist times, now looked authoritarian, especially to young people. Above all, the laity failed to mobilise effectively. Catholics, being in a clear majority, saw no need to unite politically; and their influence was dissipated among the flurry of new parties that appeared in the 1990s. Poland was ripe for a Christian Democratic movement of the sort that had existed before the war and effectively balanced the Left in Germany or Italy. But it didn’t materialise. Opposition to post-communists was left to the short-lived Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) of 1997–2002, and increasingly to a number of resentful right-wing Catholics who felt excluded. This last unsavoury trend saw the rise on the one hand, of Radio Maria, a xenophobic and mysteriously funded media movement, which classes Brussels as the new Moscow, and, on the other of the League of Polish Families (LPR), which combines traditional Catholicity with old-fashioned nationalism.
Poland in the 1990s saw a surge of unrestrained, American-style capitalism. With millions of Poles living in the USA, the defeat of communism led many to aim for a lifestyle derivative of Chicago or Detroit. And after a couple of years of austere transition, a decade of sustained high economic growth brought results. A new generation of young entrepreneurs flourished. Motorisation boomed, and consumerism arrived with a vengeance, except in the old industrial rust-belts or among the unemployed. Warsaw in particular became one of the hot spots of the New Europe. Dashing young women drove their children to private schools in shining SUVs, while workmen erected electric fences round their opulent villas. Their reward was to learn that the Pope disapproved of American-style capitalism as much as he did of dialectical materialism.
This week’s enormous church attendances — featuring even the President, a self-confessed atheist — were exceptional. It is estimated that the number of Catholic communicants has declined in the last 15 years from 70 per cent to 50 per cent of the population, and means of contraception are freely available in every supermarket.
Watching Western TV coverage of ‘Krakow-LIVE’, one gets a clear reflection of Western confusion about Poland. CNN sends in a gent who tells the viewers that the Franciscan Church is Krakow’s cathedral. The BBC sends in a lady who stands in front of St Mary’s Church on the City Square, and she, too, thinks she is in front of the cathedral. They are like Polish reporters in London who can’t tell the difference between Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s. And it’s the same with Poland’s complicated Catholic traditions.
Now the Polish Pope has gone, his bewildered Polish flock could run off in all directions. Optimists believe that his benign, moderating influence will continue to operate long after his death, and that major conflicts will be avoided. The pessimists believe the opposite. They talk of the possibility of a schism within the Polish Church between the radical ultras and the liberal intelligentsia, and the likelihood of youngsters turning away in droves. In that case, Poland will come to resemble the largely godless societies of Western Europe, and in so doing will lose much both of its inimitable flavour and of the moral strength that has served it so well in adversity. Certainly the recent sight of Lech Walesa threatening to sue Radio Maria for allowing one of its contributors to call him a communist agent does not bode well. The charge is as outrageous as if someone had accused John Paul II himself of being a covert Trotskyite.
The safest guess is to expect a variety of reactions. When the lid comes off, the pot is likely to give off a puff of steam, but it will not necessarily explode. Arguments will simmer. Everyone will claim to be acting as the late Pope would have wished. Many will find it tiresome. Yet the Poles, having possessed John Paul II as their own for 26 years, will not easily be reduced to the state of the rest of Europe. Everything is possible, but Papa Wojtyla will not be forgotten.
Professor Norman Davies is a supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and the author of God’s Playground, a history of Poland.