Pope John II was a pope who advocated for love of one’s neighbor and reconciliation. He was a moral catalyst of freedom for his home country, Poland. Even in his youth, he was an especially strong-willed man, a Catholic of deep faith and a patriotic Pole during the darkest times of his home country. Although he experienced the all-consuming hatred and perversion of both Nazis and communists for so many decades, he became a pope of tolerance and humanity.
When he was a student in beautiful Krakow, Poland’s cultural heart, he suffered – together with his Polish countrymen – from the Nazi’s deadly hatred toward Jews, the Polish people and the Catholic Church for six years. He experienced their million-fold murders in the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz, the gate to hell and nihilism. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis wanted to eliminate the middle- class and intellectual elite. If Nazi Germany had won their final victory over the USSR, Poland was to be integrated into a huge Great Germania. The Arian master race was to rule over all people, from the Oder River to the Ural. The Polish people, as so-called “subhumans,” were intended to work as slaves. The influential and educated Polish elite, deeply rooted in their faith, as well as the numerous Eastern Jews, were a permanent threat to the Nazi’s dictatorship, characterized by racial fanaticism and expansionist tendencies.
Jews were stigmatized as the “primary source of evil” and consequently dehumanized, herded together into ghettoes, shot by the hundreds of thousands, and later murdered by the millions in the death factories of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. The Catholic Church was to be eliminated after the Nazi’s final victory, in a second wave. During the war, Adolf Hitler tolerated the Church only for political reasons. Poles, Jews, political opponents, intellectuals in the occupied territories and churches were all listed on his plan of destruction. Hitler’s “religion” was the survival of the fittest and the priority of Arian race. His doctrine was a totalitarian ideology and a substitute for religion, rooted in the world of Germanic deities. Hitler considered tolerance and respect as signs of weakness.
Karol Józef Wojtyła looked into this abyss of inhuman excesses. In 1939, his university, the University of Krakow, was closed down by the Nazis and 183 professors were arrested. The young man worked in forced labor in a quarry and a chemical factory and escaped deportation to Germany. In 1942 he joined the secret seminary where he found refuge in the house of the Archbishop of Krakow, Adam Stefan Sapieha.
Many priests, monks and nuns died in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, just a few kilometers away from Krakow. Among them was a Polish Franciscan prisoner, Father Maximilian Kolbe, tattooed with the number 16670. On July 29, 1941, several men were picked out for execution in the “hunger slammer” – as means of retaliation for a suspected attempt to flee. When one of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to lament loudly, the priest asked for permission to take the place of the husband and father. The priest was imprisoned in the infamous “hunger slammer” for fourteen days, before he was finally executed with a lethal injection. In 1982, Father Kolbe was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in the presence of the man whose life he had bravely saved forty-one years earlier.
For the Polish people, 1945 didn’t turn out to be a year of liberation but only of substituting occupying forces. After the totalitarian Nazis, the totalitarian and atheist communists and the Soviet occupying forces followed. They began to expel the Polish people from the eastern part of their country. The new occupiers mistrusted the church, because it challenged their absolute claim to power over people and because it preached the omnipotence of love for one’s fellow human beings and for God instead of an ideology of hatred.
If we look at Poland’s history of suffering in the 20th century we encounter brown and red devils but also the Holy Spirit. Karol Wojtyła did not become embittered, vengeful or emotionally cold but more reflective, humane and deeply faithful. He discovered and lived out the power of love and faith and advocated for humanity, respect and tolerance all his life.
As archbishop of Krakow from 1964 onwards and in particular as a strong pope beginning in 1978, Wojtyła preached resolutely against the new unbelievers. At the same time, he advocated for reconciliation between Poles and Germans. As the first Polish pope, Wojtyła activated and inspired the Catholic Church in Poland, as well as Lech Wałesa, the workers’ leader, and his independent labor union Solidarnosc ́. His influenced helped the devout Polish people until freedom became a reality in Poland.
Pope John Paul’s legendary visits to his home country filled millions of Polish people with enthusiasm and hope. Through the power of faith, they strengthened the Wind of Change in all of Eastern Europe. The pope encouraged people to fight for a new, free and just order against totalitarian oppressors. He united citizens so they could go out into the streets courageously.
As a defender of human rights, an enemy of totalitarianism and atheist communism, the pope stood like a rock against the tide. In 1989, it was not the tanks and soldiers that were victorious, but instead the courage to fight for freedom, supported by the moral authority of the Polish pope and the country’s church leaders. Pope John Paul II, however, had to pay a high price for his commitment. Instigated by the Soviet Secret Service (KGB), under the leadership of Juri Andropow, and with the consent of the political leadership of CPSU General Secretary Leonid Breschnew, a hitman was to murder the pope in Saint Peter’s Square. In the power struggle over Poland the communists would stop at nothing.
As usual, this spectacular attack was arranged through befriended secret services, this time those of Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic and several intermediaries in order to cover up all traces leading back to Moscow. In addition, a false trail was eloquently laid which included a statement that the order to carry out the murder came directly from the Vatican, from the pope’s rivals. Consequently, even the assassin himself could no longer make out who had actually commissioned him. The KGB and its collaborators found a ruthless killer among the Gray Wolves in Turkey. Kurds, Armenians, Jews and Christians, in particular, serve as the bogeymen to these nationalistic and radical fanatics. On May 13, 1981, a Turkish Muslim, named Mehmet Ali Agca, shot the Holy Father three times. One bullet injured him severely, but he miraculously survived. Later, he even visited his potential murderer in prison in Italy and pardoned him.
April 27, 2014, Pope John Paul II was canonized together with Pope John XXIII by Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome.