Politics & Policy

The Pope as Pole

What he did for his country; what his country did for him

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.

Poland’s mourning for John Paul II is special, as might be expected: All the newspapers are framed in black, every shopping mall is closed, and not a single TV station is daring to run commercials. Poland has lost not just a pope, but a national redeemer, the person who led us out of Soviet captivity and across the Red Sea into the land of liberty and democracy.

#ad#Normally a cantankerous lot, Poles rally around about once a generation, and then their enthusiasm becomes overwhelming. The last time was when, under the Pope’s influence, they organized Solidarity, the first free trade union in the Communist world. The Pope’s death has brought them together again in sadness, but also out of gratitude, that Providence gave them this man to begin with. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz observed, in the depths of our humiliation, we got a king that we had always dreamed of.

Quite rightly, we’ve been hearing these last several days about what the Pope did for Poland. What’s less discussed, but equally interesting, is what Poland did for this pontificate, how important the Pope’s Polishness was to the way he discharged his office.

His critics had no doubt his Polishness was a factor: The Pope’s philosophy supposedly stemmed from his roots in a backward, patriarchal, authoritarian country with a reactionary church hierarchy preserved by Communism in a Counter-Reformation time warp. I was shocked to hear the BBC follow this line minutes after John Paul II’s heart stopped beating. Throughout the pontificate, some of the criticisms were suffused with a strain of ethnic prejudice that would have been considered racist if the Pope had been, say, a Nigerian…

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