The Beginning of the End: Lessons on the Fortieth Anniversary of St. John Paul II’s First Visit to Poland


Convivium, 6 June 2019

The following remarks are being delivered this evening by Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza at Polonia Night, an event hosted by the Canadian Polish Congress in Mississauga Ontario.

Canadian Polish Congress
     Polonia Night
     6th June 2019

Grand Banquet Hall – 35 Brunel Road, Ontario

Thank you for the kind invitation to join your “Polonia Night”; this summer marks the 25th anniversary of my first trip to Poland in 1994, and I will be returning this July to teach in an annual seminar run by George Weigel, the biographer of St. John Paul II. It will be my fifteenth trip to Poland, and it remains always a blessing. Kraków, where the seminar is held, the city of St. Stanisław and St. John Paul, is one of the great European cities.

It is also the city where the twentieth century happened; nearly everything of importance in politics, empires, war, peace, totalitarianism and its defeat, took place in Kraków. The royal and ancient capital of Poland is also the spiritual capital of the twentieth century – it is there that the great battle between good and evil took place, and where in the darkest hours of our time, the light of faith still shone. The light of Christ was not extinguished, even in the horror of the extermination camps built by the Nazis near Kraków.

I consider your invitation a kind recognition of my writing over the years, and I am grateful for that. Many of you follow my column in the National Post; I would encourage you follow a digital magazine I co-founded with my colleagues at Cardus in 2011. It’s called Convivium, and it explores faith in our common life in Canada. It can be found at and even as we speak tonight, the text my remarks will be posted there.

The second volume of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul is called The End and the Beginning. Taking my lead from that, with a nod to Winston Churchill, the title of my remarks tonight is The Beginning of the End – Lessons on the Fortieth Anniversary of St. John Paul II’s First Visit to Poland.

The end of the end of the Cold War came in 1989, with the peaceful defeat of communist totalitarianism. The dramatic moment occurred on 9th November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The final surrender came a few weeks later, on 1st December 1989. Having been forced to accept the external evil empire of the Soviet Union declare its emancipation from Moscow, the general secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, went to Rome to meet John Paul II. The meeting was polite and diplomatic, but there was no doubt as between Gorbachev and John Paul who had won and who had lost. In two years, the internal evil empire, the Soviet Union itself, would disappear from history.

On Tuesday, I was in Philadelphia for the enthronement of the new Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Borys Gudziak. The patriarch of the Church from Kyiv was present. When Ukraine emerged from the internal evil empire of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the most fierce religious persecutions in history came to an end. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was the largest illegal underground church in the world, having been outlawed by Stalin. That the Ukrainian Catholic Church is now free and regained its proper life, thriving in parts, is a great triumph of the spirit in history.

The historian Timothy Snyder has aptly called the vast territories between Berlin and Moscow “the bloodlands”, where the slaughter was counted not in millions but tens of millions. There was no more lethal place to be in the history of the world than “the bloodlands” of the twentieth century. Yet from there came a great triumph, rooted in a millennium of Christian witness of both Poland and Ukraine. The most powerful proponent of that witness was St. John Paul II.

This week in Canada – as a sign of how poorly we understand the history of our own country and the world – we are having a debate about whether Canada, in regard to her aboriginal peoples, is a genocidal country and has been a criminal enterprise since its founding. Let me simply observe that the word genocide has a particular resonance for those whose roots are in the bloodlands of the twentieth century. Patriotic Polish Canadians, who love Mater Polonia as well as Canada, do not need to be reminded what real genocide is, and it would be salutary for you to remind your fellow Canadians that, fully acknowledging the injustices in the treatment of our aboriginal peoples, genocide is not the proper category. “Polonia Night” is meant to celebrate the contribution of Poles to Canada. Poland has too much history, Canada perhaps too little. Therefore Polish Canadians might help us understand our history better, in the proper context and measured against the proper standard. It is service of immigrants – like me and many of you – to remind Canada of the nearly-unique place she holds in world history.

We are meeting on the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy. Perhaps you have had occasion to read the address of King George VI on D-Day 1944. Let me quote from it now:

“Once again what is demanded from us all is something more than courage and endurance; we need a revival of spirit, a new unconquerable resolve. After nearly five years of toil and suffering, we must renew that crusading impulse on which we entered the war and met its darkest hour. We and our Allies are sure that our fight is against evil and for a world in which goodness and honour may be the foundation of the life of men in every land.

That we may be worthily matched with this new summons of destiny, I desire solemnly to call my people to prayer and dedication. We are not unmindful of our own shortcomings, past and present. We shall ask not that God may do our will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God: and we dare to believe that God has used our Nation and Empire as an instrument for fulfilling his high purpose.”

What His Majesty said then about Britain and her Empire, also included Poland, the first nation to fight bravely and nobly in the Second World War. But I would suggest to you that those words fittingly characterize the witness of Poland through the entire communist period. The end of the end was 1989; the beginning of the end was ten years earlier in 1979.

You might wonder why the anniversaries of D-Day loom so large, even more than V-E Day or other WWII anniversaries. The reason is rhetorical; on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the greatest speeches in a lifetime littered with them. That speech made commemorating D-Day the principal observance of victory in WWII. On that occasion, standing on the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, President Reagan said:

Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.

What began on D-Day ended nearly a year later with victory in Europe. We gather tonight on another 40th anniversary. Forty years ago, at this very time, St. John Paul II was in Poland, his first pilgrimage to his homeland since his election in October 1978. And what he said there was far more important than what the king or president said in relation to D-Day.

St. John Paul II had asked to visit “my beloved Kraków … where every stone and brick is dear to me” for two days in May 1979. He would come for the 700th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław, the 11th-century bishop of Kraków, murdered by King Bolesław the Bold himself during the Holy Mass. The Polish communist party was aghast; the Polish pope returning to commemorate the anniversary of the Polish state killing his predecessor was simply impossible.

So they refused the proposal for two Stanisław-focused days in May, and offered instead nine days in June. John Paul accepted the “compromise” and announced the nine-day pilgrimage for June. The Polish bishops then decided to transfer the celebration of St. Stanisław’s feast to June!

Landing in Warsaw on 2nd June 1979, John Paul made a triumphal entry to the capital city, entering Victory Square, with its tomb of the unknown soldier, for the Mass for the vigil of Pentecost – just as we will be celebrating Pentecost this coming Sunday. With a million people packed into Warsaw’s rebuilt Old City, he preached the most important sermon in the thousand-year history of Poland. He began by pointedly recalling how the communists has refused permission for Pope Paul VI to visit Poland for the millennium of Poland’s baptism in 1966. But now a much more powerful pope was standing in Victory Square. John Paul’s homily was diplomatic and pious, but there was no subtlety in the message: God had won, the Church had won, the Polish people had won.

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