June 1979—The Nine Days of John Paul II

Thirty years ago this week, the Bishop of Rome returned to Poland for the first time since his recent election to the papacy. America’s premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, is not ambiguous in his judgment of what happened next: “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland—and ultimately everywhere—would come to an end.” Professor Gaddis is right: the Nine Days of John Paul II, June 2-10, 1979, were an epic moment on which the history of the 20th century pivoted, and in a more humane direction.

What did John Paul talk about during the Nine Days? He didn’t talk about politics; indeed, beyond the ritual exchanges of formalities with government officials at the arrival ceremony in Warsaw on June 2 and the departure ceremony from Cracow on June 10, the Pope acted as if the Polish communist regime did not exist. Rather, he spoke over, around, and beyond the regime directly to the people of Poland, not about what the world usually understands as power, but about people power—the power of culture and spiritual identity. “You are not who ‘they’ say you are,” the Pope proposed, in a number of variations on the same theme; “let me remind you who you really are.”

During the Nine Days of June 1979, John Paul II gave back to his people their history, their culture, and their identity. In doing so, he gave Poles spiritual tools of resistance that communism could not match. And he did all that by reminding his people that “Poland” began with its 10th century baptism—with its incorporation into the Christian world. That reminder created a moral revolution that eventually brought down the communist god that failed. For on June 4, 1989, Solidarity swept the first reasonably free elections in post-war Polish history and set in motion an unstoppable chain of events across east central Europe. The Iron Curtain collapsed in Poland, five months before the Berlin Wall fell in Germany.

What can we learn from the Nine Days, three decades later? Several important things, I’d suggest.

The first thing the Nine Days and the subsequent Solidarity revolution teach us is that history doesn’t work through politics and economics alone. The power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change.

The second lesson from the Nine Days is that tradition can be as powerful a force for dramatic social and political change as a revolutionary rupture with the past. “Revolution,” in the Solidarity experience, meant the recovery of lost values and cultural truths and their creative re-application to new situations. Tradition, according to an old theological maxim, is the living faith of the dead—a lively faith that can move history forward rather than dragging it backwards.

The third thing we ought to learn from the Nine Days and what followed in Poland is that moral conviction can be the lever once sought by Archimedes—the lever with which to move the world. There is nothing more potent in history, for good or ill, than ideas. The history of the 20th century prior to 1979 had been unspeakably bloody because of the power of false ideas and lies. The Solidarity revolution proved that the opposite could also be true, with its insistence on truth-telling amidst the communist culture of prevarication (or, as one famous slogan of the day had it, “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always = 4”).

The fourth thing we learn from the Nine Days and the moral revolution they ignited is that “public life” and “politics,” “civil society” and “politics” are not the same. Rather, the health of politics depends on the moral health of civil society.

And the fifth thing we learn about from the Nine Days of John Paul II is what the Pope later came to call “the subjectivity of society.” Free associations of men and women who are citizens, not subjects, are where democrats are made, for it’s in those free associations that we learn the habits of heart and mind that make it possible for us to be self-governing.

George Weigel

By

George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • goral

    This visit was John Paul’s novena for the crumbling of the Godless system.
    “You are not who ‘they’ say you are,” the Pope proposed,”
    This statement was (is) the stroke of spiritual genius and real power.
    The big lie of Communism is that the person exists as a worker bee for the good of the State.
    The big lie of American consumerism is that a person exists to satisfy his wants.
    Don’t buy any of it.
    Christ says “you are mine; I bought you at a price.”

    Here is an excerpt by a JP2 contemporary.
    They wrote their poetry in the same language and spirit.
    This is the free association that Mr. Weigel refers to.

    Not Mine by Czeslaw Milosz:

    All my life to pretend this world of theirs is mine
    And to know such pretending is disgraceful.
    But what can I do? Suppose I suddenly screamed
    And started to prophesy. No one would hear me.
    Their screens and microphones are not for that.

  • JimAroo

    Is there anyone more insightful or a better writer than George Weigel?

    Yes consumerism has its dangers. But it is far easier for individuals to recover from consumerism than from Communism. In the old days (1950s) church leaders recognized this. This is a lesson that they have forgotten. If you do not believe me, then show me where one bishop in the United States has protested our conversion into a Marxist state since January 20th.

    The most important institution in the world is the Catholic Church. The biggest danger to the church is a communist state. Communism is worse than abortion as an evil. Abortion is a holocaust of immense proportions but it does not necessarily threaten the very survival of the church. Communism does.

    The reason the Bishops are ambivalent about Obama is that except for life issues they love this guy and his socialist agenda. They are conflicted. Be careful Bishops, the god of the socialist state tolerates no other gods…

  • goral

    JimAroo, I disagree with your conclusion. Consumerism, love of self, love of the “good life” has damned more souls in a decade than Communism in fifty yrs.
    The Catholic Church in Poland held it’s own very nicely, producing the great Cardinal Wyszynski, the martyr Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko and the late great pope.
    All of them tested in the fire.
    Out of poverty and adversity the Church draws it’s saints. Affluence produces nothing but spiritual poverty. The evidence is there all over the world.

  • sioks

    At this visit, during a homily at Mass celebrated in Warsaw, the Pope made the following prayer: “Let Your Spirit Come! Let Him come! And renew the face of the earth. This (very) earth” This was also clearly a prophetic declaration, and every Pole knew exactly what the Pope was referring to. It is well remembered to this day as John-Paul II’s most pivotal statement while visiting Poland. The fulfillment of this prayer and prophesy took place a mere 10 years later, with the empire shattering political transformation which remarkably took place with little bloodshed.

  • JimAroo

    Goral…. can you see that their is a vast difference between the voluntary and sad moral failure of falling into the vice of consumerism and the iron fisted hand of doctrinaire Godless communism? We can convert a consumerist….but communism destroys the human spirit. Go ahead and support the communists all you like – at least you are honest about it. But kiss your religious freedom good bye.

    I really do applaud you for standing up for communism…. most Catholics are on your side, they just won’t admit it.

  • goral

    You nailed it JimAroo, you accurately identified the difference in the way a soul is transformed into subjugation.
    In the first instance the “voluntary and sad moral failure” is the acquiescence of the mind and spirit to accept the system for its own fulfillment.
    In the second instance the “iron fisted hand” causes the mind and spirit to recoil and go into a defensive mode.

    In short, the self indulging soul says – this is mine, that’s who I am.
    The violated soul ultimately says – not mine. I’m not who they say I am.
    Where is the soul more in danger?

    That was the point of my comment. That was the purpose of John Paul’s visit and indeed his whole pontificate.

    How is it then that you misconstrued it exactly a hundred eighty degrees?

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