Student of John Paul II speaks on the pope’s resistance to communism

Recently my professor, Father Andrzej Szostek, delivered a lecture on Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II’s personal, philosophical, papal, and political resistance to communism.

To the audience of visiting American students, Father Szostek proposed, with his characteristic good humour, that he give some historical context about “why it is not so easy for us to be friends with Russians.”

Here is, more or less, a transcript of the lecture. The text is based on my audio recording of it. I have altered quotations only to correct grammar and word order so that it reads more naturally:

The Polish attitude toward communism, not only to Russians, but to communism, is definitely negative for two main reasons: a patriotic one and a religious one. The patriotic reasons: Russia was one of these powers responsible for us losing our sovereignty. There had been three main powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria, but the most important was Russia. Poles always remember these events involving the division of Poland and the taking of our sovereignty. And we have to remember that Russia is Orthodox, mainly; Prussia, Protestant. And this is one of the reasons why, in Poland, there has always been a popular connection between being a Catholic and being a Pole.

Shortly after Russia became the Soviet Union and shortly after Poland had regained its independence, there was a special war between Poland and the Soviet Union. A special, great battle [the Battle of Warsaw]. Russians not only wanted to occupy Poland, but wanted to occupy all of Europe. They lost this battle in 1920 when the Soviet troops were destroyed by the Polish ones. Of course, we remember this.

At the beginning of the Second World War, German troops invaded Poland on September 1st. Seventeen days later, Russians came to Poland and took more than 50% of our territory. That was an especially tragic invasion for us. At the end of the Second World War, we had this so-called Warsaw Uprising – not the Jewish Uprising that was a little earlier – but, the Polish, Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Russians did not help the Polish troops when the Germans invaded. No. Even more, they didn’t allow for Western support. They just waited for the end of this Uprising. Now, I mean, this is all in the memory of Poles. We have to also remember Katyn when, at the beginning of the Second World War, many Polish soldiers had been killed by Russians. And all the Poles knew this.

So there are some historical reasons why Poles do not like Russians very much. I think that, if some Russian historians would come here, they would present some points about why Russians do not like Poles. That is how it goes for neighbours. We are loving Canadians because we have no special connection with them. We are loving Africans and Asians, why not? Russians… Germans… it’s not so easy. After the Second World War, Poland was one of those who won. We had been the winners officially, but our country was just put into a Soviet camp with the other countries, so we just saw that we were winners who lost our sovereignty. That is a special kind of ‘being the winner’- that the effect of the win was losing our sovereignty. This was the case for Poland.

Now, the religious reasons [for our negative attitude to communism] are quite obvious: Poles are very strongly connected with the Catholic faith, and not only because of these divisions of Poland in the 18th century. The ideology proclaimed by Soviet authorities was clearly and strongly atheistic, not just a discussion against religion. This fight was especially strong in the 1950s. And the history of the Catholic University of Lublin is one of the witnesses in this ideological battle. For example, the Communist authorities didn’t want to open this University. This was a University that remained active during the Second World War because the Soviet troops had been not so strong in 1944. Eventually, they tried to close this University, specifically the Catholic University, because it’s the humanistic one. They removed professors from our University. They limited the numbers of students who could attend. There were obstacles to publishing. They treated us like a factory, so they wanted us to pay fees for the University and when we didn’t do it, they expropriated University land. These are just some examples of the battles against the Catholic Church by the Communist authorities.

Now, Karol Wojtyła was born in 1920 near Krakow in Wadowice. He grew up in a very Catholic, patriotic family. He was a very pious boy who participated in the life of the Church, eagerly attending several Catholic traditions such as pilgrimages. He began his studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He started with the study of Polish literature. At this time he didn’t want to be a priest yet, but he paid special attention to the patriotic tradition. He was also involved in the theatre movement. He was always performing some great Polish plays- tragedies, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, also for these patriotic reasons, that he was against this occupation, this Russian invasion into Poland.

During the Second World War, Wojtyła decided to be a priest and he wanted to develop his theological education. Supported by his superior in Krakow, he made his PhD in theology. Then he was preparing his dissertation in Rome. He visited other countries as well. Then he went on to do his habilitation. After the PhD, we have the habilitation which is a more developed work. After this step, someone can become a professor or a chair of Ethics, for example. At the end of 1953, Communist authorities closed the theological faculties so that Wojtyła was the last one at Jagiellonian to complete his dissertation there. Even ’til now, this University has no theological faculty.

The professor of ethics at our university was called to go to Rome, to the Angelicum. He was called to be the Chair of Ethics there, so we needed someone here at the Catholic University of Lublin. Wojtyła had written on the possibility of founding moral theology on the basis of Max Scheler’s thought. Scheler is a well-known representative of the phenomenological tradition. And so, Wojtyła was recommended as a suitable candidate to teach ethics because, even though his studies were theological, he had focused on the question of founding Catholic thought on the basis of Scheler’s philosophy. Then, this proposition was accepted at the Catholic University of Lublin and that’s why he became professor of ethics here— and why he was here until he became the pope.

By the way, since Wojtyła became bishop in 1958, he stopped receiving his salary from the University. His salary was instead spread to students and his students went to Krakow for seminars with him on ethics. I was lucky to participate in several of them. His salary from vacation time was kept for just such reasons. Of course, Wojtyla did not share his salary among the students by himself; it was his assistant who did so and in the last years of this, I was the one who was responsible for allocating the scholarships. I remember that when he became pope, in November 1978, he was still on the list of the professors at KUL since they prepare such a list in advance. So I took the money and told his students, I have good and bad news for you: The bad news is that this is the last scholarship. The good news is that it is a scholarship founded by the pope.

As I mentioned earlier, the Communist authorities did not allow publishing Catholic publications. They wanted to convince Poles and others that the only real philosophy is Marxism. That there is no other philosophy. That there is no other thought worthy of respect except Marxist philosophy which was actually an ideology rather than any philosophy. Communist authorities obligated Marxist philosophy to be taught. So we had classes on Marxism here but not to speak in favour of Marxism, but just to make criticisms of it.

Furthermore, between 1957-58, Wojtyła published a series of articles entitled “Elemetarz etyczny” (“ABCs of Ethics”) in a weekly periodical called “Tygodnik Powszechny”. Through this medium, he offered a kind of popular explanation of the general perspective of Christian morality, presented on the philosophical level, showing that this perspective can be understood and accepted on the basis of our natural power for understanding morality. That was a very important publication as an alternative – or even opposition – to atheistic and Marxist ideology that had been so strongly spread by communist authorities. 

Part of John Paul II’s philosophical resistance to Communism was through a book which was written and translated into German before he became pope. It was then published shortly after his becoming pope. This book has three sections: the first is by Karol Wojtyła; the second part was written by his friend and student Tadeusz Styczeń; the third part was written by me. This was a special book in which Wojtyła wanted to present the outcome of his reflections made here in Poland. In this book as well as in The Acting Person, he critiqued the Marxist idea that the source of alienation is economic. Wojtyła tried to show that the source of alienation we experience in the world is much deeper and that it’s connected with our social relations, the relations between human beings. That is why one of the most important parts of The Acting Person is called “Participation”—participation in the community for which love of neighbour is the greatest and the more important word. That was his philosophical activity. Then, there was also the public activity.

There was an important battle for the construction of a church in Nowa Huta (New Foundry) during the 1970s. Krakow was a very strong centre of the Catholic tradition, so the communist authorities decided to create the big factory town nearby to Krakow, populated by workers employed in the foundry. They wanted this place to be devoid of Catholic religion, which is why they did not allow a church to be built there. Workers, of course, did not want to follow the atheistic visions of the communists. The locals were supported by Karol Wojtyła, who started holding outdoor Masses, regardless of weather, and replaced the cross every time it was removed. This is but one example of how Wojtyła showed his clear and active resistance to communism.

Interestingly, at first, the Communist regime had accepted Wojtyła as the bishop of Krakow, hoping that there would be tensions between the two leaders of the Catholic Church in Poland. They knew that Wojtyła was educated in the West and that he had very good relations with other members of the Church outside of Poland, so they hoped that there would be tension and distance between the two cardinals, but Cardinal Wojtyła was 100% loyal to Cardinal Wyszyński. He accepted him as the leader of the Church in Poland. Wyszyński was criticized by some Catholic authorities for too easily cooperating with Communist authorities. He made some dialogue with Communist authorities and from the perspective of the Vatican authorities, this was something dangerous for the Catholic Church to do, so he was criticized. Now when he, Wyszyński, said, a few years later, “Non possumus! We cannot go further, there is no way for such a dialogue – that was a very strong voice.” Then Wyszyński was put in prison. He spent two years in prisons in Poland. Nobody could presume what would happen later. But he became a hero.

During these times, a new initiative inspiring youth to be more active in proclaiming and witnessing to their Catholic faith was launched. This movement was called “Oasis of New Life”. The author of this idea was Rev. Blachnicki. Cardinal. Wojtyła was the first bishop who openly and strongly supported this initiative. Other bishops were not sure whether this idea should by supported by the Church. Krakow was the centre of this movement and Wojtyła openly supported this initiative and participated in the meetings of this movement. He understood how important is was to have opportunities for young people to become inspired and enlivened by a more conscientious understanding of their faith. Communist authorities wanted attract the youth for their ideology, so this initiative was something they considered to be a very dangerous innovation. But Cardinal Wojtyła also understood the value of this movement as a special context for the battle against communism.

Wojtyła was not a politician in the official sense, yet, all the people knew that he opened the doors for the members of our cultural life who were against Communist authorities to flourish here. Step by step, Wojtyła became more and more difficult to the Communist regime. Then, when the Solidarity Movement started, Wyszyński tried to stop it to prevent actions that he considered to be too extreme. Wojtyła, however, was in favour of Solidarity from the very beginning. So then when he became a pope, that was, for the Communist regime, just a disaster.

Because of John Paul II having become pope when Poland was under Communist control, we experienced how strong and united we are as a Catholic Church in Poland. In any city where the pope visited we saw it for ourselves: How weak is this communist regime and how strong are we! And we are together! So the pope, just by his presence, by his pilgrimages made us more aware of our possibility to rise up against the Communist regime. Of course the pope did not openly criticize the Communist regime. Yet his homilies and other speeches in which he recalled the dignity of every human person, the rights of all of us… these definitely had the effect of criticizing the regime.

Because of his political meaning, his visits, and and his speeches, he was instrumental in the breakdown of communism in Poland. It was not obvious that this would happen with no blood. It was really very risky during that time. It was also fitting to the pope’s teaching to make the world more just without bloodshed, as you know, with the important roundtables between Communists and the Solidarity Movement in 1989.

The pope visited Poland several times after that in 1991, 1995, 1997, 1999, and 2002. Each of these visits could be treated as the building of the new Poland. We started to fight against the Communist regime and according to some people, this process of changing from the communist mindset is still going on. John Paul II helped us build a new identity in Poland. However, it’s a difficult question if we ask to what degree Poles are following this example now. When I compare the language of the politicians now and the teachings of John Paul II, I cannot be optimistic; I cannot say we are such good followers of Saint John Paul II.

At the conclusion of Father Szostek’s lecture, during Q&A, the Americans expressed their own solidarity with him on the matter of lacking optimism about contemporary political leaders.


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