When Pope John Paul II, Karol Józef Wojtyła, is beatified on Sunday, the world again will have reason to reflect on the greatness and goodness, and the world-historical significance, of this remarkable man. Perhaps the best, most immediately accessible way to fathom that significance is to watch the tour de force video by Citizens United Productions, with Newt and Callista Gingrich, called Nine Days That Changed the World. While the importance of JPII's papacy spreads well beyond his essential contribution to the liberation of Poland and destruction of Soviet-led Communism, that accomplishment alone is a story of awe-inspiring note and moment. Nine Days doesn't just tell that story; it shows it, through stark and moving video footage and interviews. To flesh the story out in magnificent depth, combine Nine Days with George Weigel's recent First Things article/2011 Simon Lecture called "All War, All the Time," which draws heavily on Weigel's book The End and the Beginning.
It is virtually impossible, after reviewing these and other source materials, to conclude that JPII was anything other than one of the greatest men not just of this age, but of any age in recorded history.
Nine Days opens with video of almost indescribably massive throngs of joyous people, gathered on the streets of Krakow in June of 1979 to greet this new pope of their own homeland, a man who for decades had helped keep the Polish church alive against vicious degradations and deprivations by the Communist authorities.
"This memory will remain with me my whole life," said Monsignor Jaroslaw Cielecki, who was there in Krakow, in opening Nine Days. "When the Pope arrived, there was joy, there was applause, the people shouted. There was really a moment of, of, I was thinking like a child at that moment…. It seemed that we had left behind this time of suffering -- that he had a key, I can say in a sense, the Pope has a key to open, for freedom. The people felt it in this moment."
The footage is breathtaking. It's a celebration such as we'll rarely witness again in our lifetimes. "It was many more divisions than Stalin could imagine," said Weigel on camera. "The history of the 20th century turned in a dramatic way." Nearly one third of the entire Polish population turned out to see their hero between June 2 and 10. They did so despite the government's clear disapproval. They did so amidst repression. They did so in full knowledge that Communist henchmen had brutally put down similar populist expressions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- and in a lesser-known crackdown in Poland itself in 1970. They did so while wearing bright colors and holding aloft flowers and signs dedicated to faith and freedom.
JPII stood literally face to face with Communist authorities and asserted that Poland had the right to its own culture, its own traditions. To the masses he preached a simple message of God's love and redemption. To the world he showed that faith could face down totalitarianism. The people responded in song. One film clip shows hundreds of thousands singing these words: "We want God, in family circles, in the care of parents, and in children's dreams. He is our King and our Lord." The Pope, speaking to those hundreds of thousands in Warsaw's Victory Square, reassured them: "Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any country in the world."
As Nine Days well explains, the Solidarity movement grew directly from the experience of freedom and the example of courage shown during the Pope's 1979 visit. The movie takes you through the next decade of growing anti-Communism and the weakening of the Soviet bloc's totalitarian bonds. Rare interviews were secured with Solidarity leader and later Polish President Lech Walesa, and with Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel.
"At that state of despair and hopelessness, the Pope appeared," said Walesa. "And he awoke the nation…. The Pope organized millions for us."
What the movie could not really delve into, but what Weigel's First Things essay did, was the history stretching back some 60 years of the Communist war against the Catholic Church. Files unearthed after the collapse of the Soviet Union detail how the Soviets and their satellites actually infiltrated the Vatican with spies, how they fought the church at every turn, how they brutalized some of its priests -- and how they particularly were vexed, even for decades before Wojtyła became pope, by this one courageous priest who became bishop and then cardinal while openly challenging the Communists at every turn. When that cardinal Wojtyła was named pope, the Communist authorities were horrified. Eventually, it is clear, they tried to have him killed, with their hired assassin only barely failing to end Wojtyła's life.
"The Commission for New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee of 2000 concluded that there were likely twice as many martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined," wrote Weigel. "The great majority of these twentieth-century martyrs gave their lives for Christ at the hands of communism."
In November 1973, the SB's [Polish Secret Police's] Department IV created "Independent Group D," which was assigned the task of "distintegrating" Polish Catholicism through a coordinated attack on the Church's integrity. The leader of Independent Group D, SB colonel Konrad Straszewski, had been the secret-police contact of one of Wojtyła's colleagues at the Catholic University of Lublin for years. The reports on Wojtyła from Straszewski and other SB agents led Polish prosecutors to consider charging the archbishop of Kraków with sedition on three occasions in 1973-1974. Things had changed since the heyday of Polish Stalinism, however, and communist leader Edward Gierek did not dare do to Wojtyła what his predecessors had done to Wyszyński in 1953. So the surveillance of the archbishop increased, as did the efforts to suborn his associates in the archdiocesan chancery. And then there was the brutality: Msgr. Andrzej Bardecki, ecclesiastical advisor to the lay-run Catholic newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny, was beaten senseless by SB (or SB-inspired) thugs one night after leaving an editorial meeting that Cardinal Wojtyła also attended. Visiting the elderly priest in the hospital the next day, the archbishop said, "You replaced me; you were beaten instead of me."
No Hollywood film could do justice to this decades-long, cloak-and dagger, deadly and redemptive story of faith against all odds. But for the part of the story covered by Nine Days That Changed the World, the video, interviews, and narrative leave the viewer dumb-struck with awe.
Karol Józef Wojtyła is being beatified Sunday not because he helped kill Communism, but as a result of how he carried out his life and ministry in the full myriad of ways a priest and pope acts to touch the hearts of the faithful. One needs not be Catholic, or even Christian, to recognize profound goodness and even holiness when it appears -- as it did appear in the person of Wojtyla. One need not share his exact theology to recognize its rare combination of learning, faith, humility and compassion.
Pope John Paul II made this world a better place. This weekend, the Catholic Church moves one step closer to pronouncing him a saint. Catholic or not, we all can pronounce him a blessed champion.
1. For full disclosure, I served for about five weeks on the payroll of Citizens United several years ago, to help with two specific projects. The idea for this movie emerged months after I left, and my brief tenure at Citizens United in no way affected my assessment of this film.
2. I am an Episcopalian, not a Catholic; what I understand about beatification is only reed-thin. I therefore offer no opinions on the beatification itself, but only on the public record of the man Wojtyła.