In 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader to preside over the teetering Soviet empire, remarked, “Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without this pope.”
The pope to whom he was referring was the first non-Italian pontiff in more than four centuries — a Pole, born Karol Wojtyla, or as he was known to the world, John Paul II.
And as of last Sunday, he will forever be known as Saint John Paul II.
For much of my youth, I recall thinking that Pope John Paul II was a family friend. His image was a fixture in my grandparent’s home; his gentle face always familiar and inviting.
And there was a shared history between his life and that of my grandfather, who grew up in Poland and after the country fell to the Nazis in 1939 spent the duration of the war as a German prisoner. I’m certain that my grandfather and Karol Wojtyla, who was a factory worker and clandestine seminarian during the German occupation, survived the war in their ravaged homeland through much the same means: the power of fervent prayer and unwavering faith.
It was those formative experiences, those insights gained during years of untold human atrocity, conflict and loss — first under the Germans and then the Soviets — that animated John Paul II’s papacy and would eventually define him as the world’s foremost conscientious objector to the communist oppression of Eastern Europe.
“John Paul II had an acute sense of the gaping holes that had been torn in the moral and spiritual fabric of humanity by the murderous cruelties of the 20th century,” writes religious scholar and biographer George Weigel.
But Karol Wojtyla’s hope and empathy for human suffering only grew stronger.
So it was a welcome surprise when in 1979, not long after succeeding his namesake at the Vatican, John Paul II selected his beloved Poland, then under secular communist authority, as the destination for his first papal visit.
During his nearly 27 years in Rome, John Paul II traveled to close to 130 countries on six continents, taking his message of hope, love and scriptural truth to any who found comfort in his exhortation to “Be not afraid!”
But the nine days he spent in Poland in 1979 are said to have been some of the most influential of his papacy.
Nearly one-third of the nation’s citizens saw him in person.
With his gentle defiance present in words more conciliatory than critical, he celebrated the sacred Mass throughout the country, dismaying communist leaders and lighting within his countrymen, so desperate for inspiration, the spark that would ignite a great fire of human liberation throughout the European continent and the world.
To those people, he was already a saint.
Twelve years after his monumental visit, the Soviet Union was no more.
But while his role in its dissolution was nothing short of extraordinary, it is often marginalized by secular historians.
In 2005, the year of his death, author Diane Ravitch reviewed widely used history textbooks and found that “… with a single exception — today’s textbooks ignore or minimize Pope John Paul II’s significance in world history.”
Omitting a figure of such magnitude from history books is more than a terrible shame, particularly when his message of faith, hope and love still has the power to transform the world for the better.
And Pope John Paul II’s affection for humanity did not end with the fall of communism.
Ever concerned with material poverty, he witnessed new deficiencies emerging in the modern world, spiritual poverty in particular.
His 2003 apostolic exhortation on the church in Europe was disarmingly prophetic. He wrote of the spread of individualism and “an increased weakening of interpersonal solidarity” such that “many people, while not lacking material necessities, feel increasingly alone, left to themselves without structures of affection and support.”
Combating this burgeoning “loss of hope” is a war of equal gravity his own mortality did not allow him to finish. And so it is left to his current successor, Pope Francis.
Fortunately for Pope Francis, John Paul II’s canonization means that he has friends in high places.