It was 1978 and a Pole unknown to the Western World was elected Pope. To the Communist East, this event was as much of a surprise. Nevertheless, neither East nor West could have imagined just what an impact the outcome of that Papal election would have upon the world’s political balance.
Decades earlier, Stalin had dismissed the Church mockingly asking how many ‘divisions’ the Pope had at his disposal. On that October night in 1978, as the flashlights and cameras focused on the newly elected Pope as he greeted the crowds below him in St. Peter’s Square, the now dead Soviet dictator and his successors were about to have their answer.
A new film, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, has just been released. It charts the secret history of the struggle that intensified from the night of that Papal election. It is a story of a Pope, a US President, a British Prime Minster and an assorted bunch of Communist Party bureaucrats and tyrants vying for control of Europe. Whereas this reading of 20th Century European history will come as no surprise to some, to others it will seem an outlandish thesis. On a closer examination of events – events that had their genesis in the East almost 100 years ago – initially, at least, it may provoke surprise, then arouse curiosity before finally ending with the conclusion that the events of this world are either random or part of a greater struggle, one that existed at the beginning of history and that will be with us until its end.
The documentary starts with one of the 20th Century’s seismic events, namely the October Revolution of 1917. The rest of Europe, having exhausted itself upon the fields of France and Flanders, and with a peace of sorts declared, now faced a new threat from the East. In 1920, Bolshevik armies attacked Catholic Poland. Their aim was to destroy that country and its age-old culture rooted in the faith of its people before attacking Germany and the rest of Europe.
This film is right to see the 1917 Revolution and the subsequent attack on Poland as the overture to what was to come next. Not least as it was in 1920, the year of the Bolshevik offensive, that Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in Wadowice. Pause for a moment and think of the consequences for the young Karol, and indeed the world, if Trotsky and the Bolshevik armies he commanded had triumphed. But they did not prevail. Undoubtedly the moral resolve and the passionate defence launched at the Soviet invader by Polish forces played their part, but there was something else besides.
The year that had given birth to revolutionary Communism was also the year in which an apparition had occurred at Fatima on the other side of the European continent. Three peasant children had been told of a different revolution, one that involved the triumph not of a ‘Socialist Utopia’ but of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As the Soviet armies powered their way through the Polish frontier and beyond, there were many Poles who fled to their ancient Marian shrine of Czestochowa to pray for deliverance. An answer to those prayers was to come.
By the summer of 1920 all looked lost for Poland. At the edge of Warsaw stood the Soviet army. Pleas for help to the Western powers had proved futile; there was to be no earthly aid for the Poles. Those that could had fled the Polish capital. But as the Soviet war machine closed in for the kill, the candles and their entreaty still burned at Czestochowa.
On 5th August, Pope Benedict XV, sensing the urgency of the situation, exhorted all bishops of the Catholic world to pray for Poland, and indeed for Europe. It was that night that the Polish military decided upon a strategy that they deployed ten days later. On 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, against all odds, what was left of the Polish army defeated the Soviet military might arraigned against it. That battle came to be known as the Miracle on the Vistula. It was indeed miraculous and one that would send the invader home, ending the Soviet dreams of spreading atheistic anarchy throughout Europe. It also meant that the young Karol Wojtyła would grow up in the faith of his ancestors.
Poland and its sad history are central to this film. Its focus is on one man and his land and culture that were attacked again and again from East and West in an attempt to destroy them. Hitler tried to obliterate her from the map; Stalin found common cause with the Nazis in this objective. Both were to fail. Watching this documentary one can only conclude that the destiny of this land is closely tied to that of the Continent. Nevertheless as the film acknowledges, in the end, Poland lost the Second World War twice.
When all in the West were celebrating victory, Poles watched as the Soviets now at last made their entry into Warsaw. Rightly, the filmmakers make clear that what took place at Yalta between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt was a betrayal of the many nations then held captive in what was to be known as the Soviet sphere. Watching archive footage of these events – something the film intercuts well into the narrative – one is left feeling that the sense of victory and peace so much a part of the national stories of the Western Powers was, and still is, a tainted one.
Nevertheless, there was yet another miracle during these years of war and occupation. Karol Wojtyła survived. Not only did he survive, but the experiences of totalitarianism and the wars and terrors they provoked formed the basis of his thought and direction for the rest of his life. Paradoxically, they moved him away from these dogmas of hate to a Gospel of Love, from the lies of government regimes to a quest for the truth about the human person.
What is clear from the interviews and footage of the post-War years is the war against the Church that had come to Poland in 1920 was, from 1945, once more ignited in that land. The child of 1920 was now a man, then a priest, then bishop, eventually becoming a cardinal. The ideology that had tried to rid the world of his spiritual birthright now tried to curtail his activities, to hamper his ability to communicate; to stifle the words he spoke and even to manipulate him for its own ends. All these attempts failed. Nowhere was this more exemplified than in the church of Nowa Huta. In the new Workers’ Paradise, built in the 1950s, there was to be no place of worship. The Communist ideal was to be incarnated in the bricks and mortar that framed the brave new world of those who lived in Nowa Huta; and, this ideal excluded any idea of God. Bishop Wojtyła was having none of this. Two decades later, a church stood in the Workers’ Paradise. It was – it is – a testament to the faith of Polish workers, but also a testimony to the tenacity of their pastor. In the end, he won this battle with the Communist authorities. Just a few months after the church’s final consecration, and as the pallium was laid on Wojtyła’s shoulders, battle would commence once more only this time the ‘godless zone’ was not simply one town but the many towns spread out as far as the eye could see from East Berlin to the Siberia.
The film captures well what happened next: the three visits of Wojtyła, the now reigning Pope to the officially atheistic Polish state. It records how each trip provoked both action and reaction and how the Polish government and its Soviet masters did not know how to deal with their consequences. How each visit gathered, then strengthened, and then released the pent-up desire for freedom within the hearts of a nation that had been united and transformed by the presence among them of the Slavic pope, this is illustrated well in the film’s use of archive footage – in particular, in relation to the birth of Solidarity.
Interestingly, the film rightly posits the beginning of the end of the Polish Communist regime with one event. On the first trip to Poland, in 1979, at the Mass in Victory Square the Holy Father prayed loudly and intently for the Holy Spirit to come upon his homeland and set it free. As he did so, something happened. Many were to remark later how it was that day, that hour that freed them internally from the shackles of an ideology built upon lies. It is said that one of the late Pope’s favourite Biblical verses was: the Truth will set you free. On that June day in Poland, the truth of the Gospel was proclaimed in the word and presence of this successor of Peter and, with it, a people’s liberation began.
Nevertheless, this was almost strangled at birth. In 1981 an attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul. His survival was miraculous, as the film is quick to recognise. As the wounded pope was to say later: one hand fired the bullet another guided it away. The day of the assassination was May 13th the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
If I have any criticism of this film it is that it is too short. Its running time is 90 minutes; it could have been five times that. The story it tells is an epic one between good and evil played out across the decades of the 20th Century and across the lands of Europe from Portugal to the vast wastes of Russia. It is a secret history – one not yet fully acknowledged. It records a struggle between the powers of darkness whether ‘slouching to Bethlehem’ brandishing a Hammer & Sickle or a Swastika. It is also the story of the defeat of those forces. Pope St. John Paul played his part in what was never simply a political or a military ‘war’ but rather a spiritual one.
There is another film still to be made, or more precisely a series. These will tell more of this secret history. They will speak of the words heard by the children of Fatima in contrast to the bombastic outpourings of dictators; they will tell of the saints now emerging from that era as the petty tyrants fade from history; they will show the wisdom of popes and the compromises of those still considered the ‘great and the good’ by the world. Such a series will reveal that history has and always shall consist in this struggle, one that continues, if with different flags and slogans, to be played out until Kingdom come and the true Liberator returns.
Editor’s note: You can learn more about Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism by visiting jp2film.com.