By the thousands, Poles continue to stream to Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican City to pay homage to one of the most beloved men in the history of their nation–as many as 200,000 to 2 million are expected to make the pilgrimage during the official days of mourning for Pope John Paul II. To understand their response, one must grasp the suffering of the Polish people under the grim, heavy hand of atheistic Communism for parts of five decades.
A Polish immigrant who can speak to this experience is Joseph Dudek, an American citizen living in the small town of Ford City, located in western Pennsylvania. The 53-year old was a mining engineer in Poland before he became a refugee in 1985. He and his wife Barbara are both natives of Karol Wojtyla’s hometown of Krakow. In fact, as an adolescent Barbara received the sacrament of Confirmation from no less than the future Holy Father himself, when he was either a bishop or cardinal (she’s not certain).
Joseph Dudek recently sat for an interview for my research on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. He had a lot to say not just about Reagan but also Pope John Paul II. His thoughts on the late pontiff help clarify the struggle of Poles under Communism and why this pope means so much to them:
Was it accurate to describe the USSR as an “evil empire”?
“I think it was because the Communist government that ruled didn’t recognize religion. They were atheists and [with] the evil they did to their people and other countries, they thought they had no accountability before God–but they are accountable. They will answer to God.”
Was the Soviet leadership anti-God, anti-religion, anti-Christian?
“They were against religion…. First the Communists got rid of priests. But in Poland the faith was strong enough to override the Communist philosophy. The Soviet leadership was indeed anti-God and anti-Christian. Though various countries may have had a particular denomination of Christianity, each individual country was affected by the religious persecution the Communists were instilling. I feel the Soviet leadership had a fight with religion and believed the first step in this fight was to round up the church leaders in each denomination and “get rid” of them. They felt that doing away with the leaders would crush all faith in God. Fortunately for the faithful, this did nothing.
“The Soviet leadership … feared religion because the leaders of the Church taught morality and faith. Therefore those with this faith would never adopt the philosophy of the Communist…. Their faith would overpower the political faith of Communists. Poland is a great example. Many of the faithful, though in fear, still attended church so that they could receive the Most Holy Sacrament; some traveled long distances to worship so they could worship. This, I believe, is the strong faith that enabled them to survive the Communist regime.”
Were Polish citizens free to worship God during the Cold War?
“Polish citizens were able to attend church in their own communities but those people that had a higher status in the public community had to make the choice of either worshiping secretly or to join the Communist party publicly to keep their job, apartment, etc. Those with young families were especially affected; they were at the greatest disadvantage because as they applied for jobs or apartment housing all was controlled by the Communist government. These young families had nothing but they knew that if they joined with the Communist party they would get all the government benefits. More goods and privileges would be given to them if they joined with the Communists.
“Poland was a religiously repressed nation because the Communist Party started with the arresting of Cardinal Wyszynski and other bishops and priests. But instead of destroying the faith (what the Communists wanted), the Poles became stronger by praying day and night in their churches.
“Other examples of religious oppression were: An annual procession of the Body and Blood of Christ with five altars on the streets was no longer allowed to happen. The building of new churches was forbidden. Those that were actively religious were questioned for their faith. Catholic universities and schools were closed and confiscated by the Communist government. They also took away any land owned by priests and parishes. Finally they closed monasteries and seminaries….”
“The Polish government was coached by Moscow for various things. It was a puppet of Russia.”
Dudek cites three factors as crucial to the end of Communism’s grip on Poland: the Solidarity movement, the Reagan presidency, and the papacy of John Paul II. He said that the election of the pope from Poland gave “hope to everyone.” Indeed, said Dudek, the Pope’s visit to Poland in July 1979 “changed everything.” “I felt this was great for Poland,” he said. “It raised our spirits. It was not only a religious but political victory. We went to see him speak with millions of people. I feel that the pope should take as much credit as Reagan when it comes to ending the Cold War.”
There are millions of Poles who share that conviction and want to see the pope once more. This week and next many of them are heading to Rome to offer thanks.