John Paul II: ‘president’ of Polish hearts

Pope John Paul II speaks in Gdańsk, northern Poland, during his pilgrimage to homeland in 1987. Photo: Piero GUERRINI/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

John Paul II stamped his authority not only over the Catholic Church and the international stage, he was also the real spiritual leader of the Polish nation. The president of Polish hearts.

‘Polish Pope’ elected on this day in 1978

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There can be little doubt that it was the visit of the pontiff to his native land in 1979, just a few months into his papacy, that was the catalyst for the peaceful political awakening that took place a year later. The millions who took to the streets and squares saw that they were many and the ruling communists were the few.

Just over a year, later a mass wave of strikes led to the formation of “Solidarity”, nominally a trades union, but in reality a mass political movement for independence and democracy. The church played the role of both midwife to “Solidarity” and mediator between the state and the emerging organization.

As a result of intense pressure from the USSR the Polish communist authorities imposed martial law in 1981 and de-legalized Solidarity. But a strong underground opposition remained and the church, boosted by the moral authority of a Polish Pope continued to play the role of a mediator between the authorities and their opponents.

The Pope visited Poland twice more before a combination of international factors led to the communist authorities and the USSR accepting that Poland was to be an independent and democratic state once more. But that was certainly not the end of the Polish Pope’s influence on his homeland. He and the Catholic Church continued to play a mediating role during political conflicts and their support was crucial in propelling Poland into the EU in 2004.

The Pope continued to visit Poland after 1989 and he was a respected authority figure by all political and social actors in the country. The country mourned his death in 2005 but, predictably, that was not a prelude to unity but rather a new period in Polish politics in which there was no universally accepted figure of authority that could unite virtually all Poles.

His memory unites Poles and his pontificate is regarded as a period in which Poland was re-born. A rebirth for which he called in his sermon at an open-air mass attended by hundreds of thousands in Warsaw. Stalin once asked mockingly “how many divisions has the Pope”. During the pontificate of John Paul II in Poland it turned out that he had quite a few.