Stalin once joked "how many divisions has the pope" in response to a henchman reporting papal opposition to him. The evil empire he built, however, came to ruin partly due to the efforts of the Papacy. Last Sunday, Pope Francis canonized two former popes, John XXII and John Paul II, also known as "the Great."
Not often can a 2,000 year old institution say that one of its greatest leaders governed in the living memory of most here on earth. St. Leo I the Great met the terrifying Attila and his Huns on the gates of Rome and convinced them not to plunder and slaughter the vulnerable populace within. St. Gregory the Great defined the Church and its role for centuries after in his writings. St. Gregory VII faced down the Holy Roman Emperor, protecting the power of his office, but had to flee Rome at the end of his life, his last words being "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."
Other popes led the Church through periods of modernization, such as the Catholic Reformation and the Second Vatican Council (under the tutelage of St. John XXII.) But not since the Middle Ages has a pope had an impact quite like St. John Paul II the Great.
He was born Karol Josef Wojtyla in Poland in 1920. At 19, he saw German tanks and Soviet Red Army ranks cleave into his fiercely proud country. He studied in secret for the priesthood under the Archbishop of Krakow during the war, learning both love for humanity and the desire to oppose unholy totalitarianism.
Poland during the Cold War occupied an unstable place in the Soviet Eastern European empire. They did not forget its occasional and bloody uprisings under the Czar in the 1800s. Leaders feared the latent strength of its people, who waged a destructive guerrilla war against German occupation. Poland, therefore, got a little more latitude than other countries.
Poland's Catholic Church never cracked under the pressure of the secret police. Unlike many other countries, Catholicism was seen as tantamount to patriotism. Church leaders fought to remain independent and true to the people and the Word as much as possible without bringing retribution. By 1964, he rose to become Archbishop of Krakow. In the meantime, he had served as a bishop and contributed heavily to the reforms undertaken at the Second Vatican Council.
Soviet leaders and intelligence opened psychological operations against Wojtyla in 1971. They noted that "without openly opposing the Socialist system, he has criticized the way in which the state agencies of the Polish People's Republic have functioned." By the mid 70s, Polish prosecutors concluded that his sermons could earn him prosecution and a sentence of one to 10 years. The respect of the Polish people and his international reputation saved him from anything but impotent outrage.
The College of Cardinals elected him as pope in 1978. He took the name of his predecessor who had died unexpectedly soon after his own accession. John Paul II served as a direct statement by the Roman Catholic Church at a point in the Cold War when western resolve seemed to flag. He was the first Pole ever chosen and the first non Italian in centuries.
Within a few years, the world saw the rise of three leaders, St. John Paul II the Great, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and President Ronald Reagan, destined to transform the world.
Each of the three were idealists at heart. Thatcher envisioned that a free market could restore Britain to its former economic glory. She and Reagan both believed in the spiritual power of freedom to inspire those living in tyranny. An entirely free world could be an entirely peaceful world. The pope shared these dreams, as well as Reagan's very deep personal faith in a God that wanted His people to live in freedom.
When a Pole became pope, the Soviet empire's days were numbered, although no one knew it then. Poland's keystone position in the prison of nations served as the flaw. Even the Polish government by the late 1970s gave up on Marxism-Leninism, looking for western credit to create semi-free trade. This debt scheme collapsed at about the same time as Polish workers started to rebel.
Polish shipworkers had tired of working in dangerous conditions for low pay so they did what many Westerners had done, form a trade union. In a free society, this happens without calamity. In a state supposedly dedicated to the workers, it struck at the heart of why Communist authoritarianism was legitimized. If a peoples' republic is not a workers' state, how can it justify tyranny. Walesa's union soon grew into a political party, Solidarity.
Communist bosses in Moscow and Warsaw celebrated Wojtyla's vacating his seat in Poland. They foresaw that the "Catholic Church will now make greater efforts to consolidate its position and increase its role in the social and political life of the country." But they sorely underestimated what was to come.
After the election of Reagan, Vatican ties with the United States warmed. An official diplomatic exchange took place for the first time in many years. Vatican and US intelligence shared information on happenings behind the Iron Curtain. Money came from the CIA through the Vatican to boost Walesa's Solidarity and other groups.
The Pope himself remained the prime mover of Polish public opinion. Millions poured into the streets to welcome his return in 1983. Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski found himself increasingly between the two stools of hard line rulers in Moscow willing to order in tanks to restore power and the enthusiasm of the people. Jaruzelski later remembered that even as an atheist, he found his knees shaking under the table in anticipation of meeting the Pontiff.
St. John Paul II had that effect. Only a generation removed from active anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States, Protestants outnumbered Catholics in overflowing crowds that came to hear him. He balanced a rigorous defense of traditional doctrine with repeated assurances of the love of Jesus Christ for all humanity. The Papacy remained a rock during his tenure as a defense of values such as right to life while never wavering in the ideal of God's grace and mercy.
By the 1990s, freedom had won in Europe. Poland's Communist leaders simply gave in to public pressure, held elections, and peacefully left office. Other regimes fell, some with peace, others in violence. In the end, hundreds of millions ended up living in relatively free societies unafraid of the KGB or its little brothers in occupied states.
The peaceful victory of liberty was the goal of St. John Paul II the Great and his secular partners, Reagan and Thatcher. All three were necessary to the process, all had roles to play.
In the end, the Pope needed no divisions. He helped to defeat the Evil Empire with the love of God; for that he earned the title of "Great."