As war clouds gathered over Western Europe in 1935, French foreign minister Pierre Laval sought Joseph Stalin’s help.
The fragile French government was attempting to bolster its defenses in the face of the growing German military threat. The support of the French Communist Party (which took orders only from Moscow) and of the Roman Catholic Church was essential. Laval approached Stalin in the hope that he would liberalize his stance toward religion and hence accommodate the church in Russia, thereby influencing the papacy to take a more supportive view of the French defensive moves.
Stalin responded derisively, “The pope! How many divisions has he got?” The Vatican, after all, is not a military power possessing vast armies of its own to be unleashed at the behest of the pope. Nor was the pope able at that time to wield great influence in nonmilitary ways.
The papacy in the 1930s may well have been described in terms of a powerless pope, but if Stalin had witnessed the church-led transformation that has taken place in Europe since the late 1980s, his response to Laval’s inquiry might well have been very different.
From Stalin’s point of view, the Roman Catholic Church had been relegated to has-been status in the progression of history. Its day was past. The power and glory that the church had displayed in the crowning of princes and the forging of geopolitical strategies had no place in the 20th century.
A generation after Stalin, however, on October 22, 1978, Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla was inaugurated as Pope John Paul II. His part in reestablishing the papacy as a major force in the geopolitics of the world is perhaps underestimated and largely unrecognized. His powerful impact on the church and on the world at large will be carried over well into the new millennium.
John Paul II is, of course, not the only modern pope to influence the geopolitics of the present world. His predecessor but one, Paul VI, was an ardent traveler and an active opponent of repression and injustice. Before him, John XXIII was credited with providing a face-saving measure for Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But John Paul II’s contribution to the stature of the papacy eclipses any other in recent history.
Wojtyla became pope at a critical time for Eastern Europe and the communist bloc. His part in the events of the 1970s and ’80s needs to be appreciated to understand the vision he has for the entire world.
The Spirit of Solidarity
Solidarity became known to the Western world as the name of a Polish trade union that blossomed from the Gdansk shipyards in the late 1970s. Its champion was Lech Walesa, who later became president of postcommunist Poland.
But Solidarity was more than a trade union. According to Jonathan Luxmore and Jolanta Babiuch, authors of The Vatican and the Red Flag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1999), it “was really a social movement, motivated by civil and national demands as much as by economic and social ones. If it had one overriding aim, it could be summed up thus: to restore dignity to life and work, and to demand the justice and truthfulness which went with it. The August  strikes were an industrial action, but they were also a spiritual experience” (p. 226).
Few realize that the term solidarity and the method by which the Polish unions would fight the communists were first set out in 1969 by Wojtyla, a then recently appointed cardinal.
Few realize that the term solidarity and the method by which the Polish unions would fight the communists were first set out in 1969 by Wojtyla, a then recently appointed cardinal. His treatise, The Acting Person, was a rebuttal of a work by Poland’s foremost Marxist theorist, Adam Schaff. Wojtyla challenged the fundamental basis of the communist state.
Though it wasn’t a head-on conflict, his arguments undermined the very foundation of the communist rationale. Communism was built on a particular worldview: The oppressed were destined to rise up against the oppressors. To the communists, the church had always been an agent of oppression, so it had to be fought. Wojtyla challenged that view by positioning the church as part of the oppressed and showing that the communists had no historic mandate at all.
Rather, he called the oppressed into solidarity with the church; they were to demonstrate that relationship through cultural resistance to the state. Individualism and totalism were to be replaced with solidarity. As Luxmore and Babiuch put it, the “correcting of injustices” and the use of “civil opposition as a form of social love” became the rallying cry for Wojtyla.
The cardinal was already perceived as a danger by the state, but few within the Communist Party apparently understood the import of his writing. In reality, the seeds of the movement that astonished the world in the late 1970s and early ’80s had been sown a decade before. When they sprouted, they brought about a transformation of the political landscape of Europe. Communist states and parties around the world went into comprehensive retreat.
Wojtyla had a view of history that ran counter to the communist diktat. He believed with all his considerable passion that God, not the state, was in charge of history. He believed that the gospel outlined God’s view for humanity, and that human government had to reflect that outlook.
The Still-Meddlesome Priest
In May 1979 the church in Poland was to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint, who had risen to prominence shortly after the Christianization of Poland.
To 20th-century Poland’s communist rulers, Stanislaus had been just another meddlesome priest, and he had received his just reward. As Thomas à Becket had been eliminated by England's Henry II in 1170, so the Polish leadership had dispensed with Stanislaus a century earlier.
The importance of the anniversary was not lost on the embattled modern-day church, which was once again struggling against oppressive overlords.
The celebrations to commemorate Stanislaus were scheduled for May 1979, some eight months after Wojtyla ascended the Roman Catholic Church’s throne of St. Peter as supreme pontiff. Now as Pope John Paul II, he intended to return home to participate in those events. The Communist Party sought to block the visit but only managed to defer the date.
The end result, however, was a major triumph for the church. Instead of visiting two cities over a two-day period, John Paul II was now able to visit six cities over a nine-day period. The fact that this visit was to be a month late did not matter. The church simply extended the celebrations by a month. The result was a public relations disaster for the Communist Party.
That outcome would have made an earlier pope, Gregory VII, proud. To the Western world at the start of a new millennium, the time of Gregory VII is lost in antiquity. Yet the effect he had on the world bears a striking similarity to that of the present pope. Coming to the See of St. Peter in 1073 and reigning until 1085, Gregory transformed the church and the papacy at a time when they were beset with both internal and external problems. So great was his contribution to the well-being of the church that nearly a millennium later, his reign is still considered by some to be the great turning point in doctrines relating to the church.
He wrestled with the kings of his day over the lay ordination of clergy and over the associated abuses of simony (the buying of ecclesiastical offices). The clergy were to be appointed by the church and the church alone, Gregory said, and their allegiance was to be to the church. This brought him into conflict with the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who was not about to lose control of a source of both revenue and influence.
But Gregory saw himself as Christ’s vicar on earth, and that meant that he had all power—even over emperors. And so Gregory won the first round, which ended with Henry being excommunicated. So effective was Gregory’s action that Henry, who was the first to experience the power of this pope, had to come to Cassina, Italy, where Gregory was staying, and spend three days standing in the snow outside the walls of the city. From this cold and humble outpost, clad in coarse woolen garments, he petitioned the pope for forgiveness and reinstatement.
Gregory granted the emperor a pardon, and Henry set out to equal the score. The pope did not have modern means of communication whereby he could instantly rally the troops in the church to his cause, as could be done today. An uneven battle ensued, with Henry and his armies fighting the lone Gregory. Henry and his forces eventually succeeded in driving the pope from Rome to die in exile.
Transfer of Power
The emperor, however, never recovered the power to appoint priests. That remained safely in the hands of the church. So the second round may have been Henry’s, but Gregory had succeeded in a much more important way. His Dictates Papae, issued in 1075, contained some 27 propositions on his view of the papacy and the subordination of kings and emperors to the pope.
The result, in the words of the late author, theologian and ecumenist Cardinal Yves Congar, was that Gregory “ended up by making the Church itself into a legal institution.” When dealing with the temporal powers of the day, the church “was led to adopt very much the same attitudes as the temporal power itself, to conceive of itself as a society, as a power, when in reality it is a communion, with ministers, servants.” Thus Gregory “launched the second-millennial papacy as a legalistic, monarchical office—a concept foreign to the first-millennial Church and to the whole of the East, past and present alike” (quoted by Richard P. McBrien in Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2000, p. 181).
The 900th anniversary of Stanislaus’s martyrdom brought this into focus. Stanislaus had not been just any meddlesome priest. He had been a servant and protégé of Gregory VII himself, and now Gregory’s views on nations and the subordination of kings and rulers were also to be reconsidered. According to Luxmore and Babiuch, John Paul II regarded Stanislaus as a “patron of moral order” in Poland.
Stalin’s barb, “How many divisions has the pope?” may have been an appropriate evaluation of the papacy in the 1930s. But by 1979 the papacy’s time had come in communist Poland. The pope's “divisions” were in fact numerous: they flowed onto the streets of Polish cities to celebrate mass with their leader during Stanislaus’s anniversary. The church was responsible for all preparations, including security. So a generation accustomed to being taken care of and dictated to by the Communist Party now saw another influence at work: the church.
The impact of the visit astounded all who witnessed it, from Polish peasants to Kremlin leaders. Almost one in three Poles attended a mass or otherwise listened to or observed the Polish pope during that visit, which culminated in a mass for more than a million people on the outskirts of Krakow on June 10, 1979. Gregory had returned. The “meddlesome priest,” it turned out, had been an unfortunate description for the saint whose anniversary was being celebrated by this new Gregory.
Restoring More Than Culture
The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1962 - 65), in which Wojtyla had played a prominent role, had (again in the words of Luxmore and Babiuch) “talked about the ‘right to culture’ and about Christianity’s ‘acculturation’ in various contexts. But in the Pope’s hands ‘culture’ became a word for identity, history and spirituality put together—the common good and soul of the nation, something more decisive than material power and boundaries” (p. 215).
It is easy to see the influence of this pope on Poland; he is a Pole and a favored son of his people. But the transformation of Poland affected events and politics far beyond Polish borders. Czechoslovakia, with a powerful Roman Catholic church, also responded to the lead of the new pontiff. In the end, the collapse of the communist-led regimes throughout eastern and central Europe was inevitable. They fell like dominoes. Over a period of months, the politics of the entire European continent changed. Communist parties in other parts of the world similarly felt the effect.
The pope was now a force to reckon with. No longer was he just the head of another state.
The pope was now a force to reckon with. No longer was he just the head of another state. John Paul II carried out the role that Gregory outlined but had been unable to fulfill. Wherever he went, he appealed to the people and went over the heads of governments. In several cases he marshaled populaces in opposition to governments that did not stand for his view of humanity. It was as though he desired the Byzantine concept of symphonia, with the church ruling nations in concert with the governments of the day.
To his critics within the Roman Catholic community, John Paul II is clearly a restorationist, meaning that he has elevated the role of the papacy within the church to levels it exercised before Vatican II. As such, his pontificate has been compared to that of such popes as Innocent III and Boniface VIII, successors of Gregory VII who took his principles to even greater heights.
Suffering from increasing debilitation from Parkinson’s Disease, John Paul II recently set out on what may be his last crusade. Like Gregory VII before him, he sees the Middle East as the place that requires attention. Gregory wanted to mount a crusade against the so-called infidel in Jerusalem and Palestine. The crusade was not to be led by some prince or king but by Gregory himself. He, as Christ’s vicar on earth, was to free Jerusalem from the heathen and once more open up the holy shrines to the faithful.
John Paul II’s vision for the Middle East has similarities. To this pope, the follower of Islam is not the infidel any more than the devout Jew is. The modern threat is that war could easily engulf the area and shatter the fragile peace efforts, thereby denying the faithful access to the holy places. Once again, John Paul II sees his office and role as one of changing nations and peoples for the benefit of all humanity.
Physically enfeebled as he is, the pope retains the vision of an influential role for the papacy in the modern world. He has emasculated communism. He may yet influence the Middle East. But the greater challenge lies ahead for his successors—that of reconciling the Western world to his view of the church and the leadership of the papacy. Is such reconciliation possible?
For many, the world is a safer place because of the activities and vision of John Paul II. Despite his critics, he is seen by many as a good man having contributed much to human dignity. But is his comprehensive vision defensible? The secular West will no doubt downplay his role and his place in history. And a higher authority challenges us to reexamine many aspects of his theology.
The pope claims to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Yet, has not the role of the papacy since its inception contradicted the plain teachings of Jesus Christ Himself?
Answering the questions of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ said that His kingdom was not of this world. If it were, His disciples would have taken up arms to prevent the arrest of Jesus (John 18:35-36). Before His ascension, Jesus responded to the inquiry of His disciples as to when the physical nation of Israel should be reestablished. He then commissioned them to go into all the world as witnesses to His kingship and told them that the matter of reestablishing the kingdom was in His Father’s control (Acts 1:6-8).
Nowhere in the writings of the apostles do we find a desire to control or direct the affairs of nations. That was for a future time, after the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth. When that time comes, Christ Himself will rule the nations of the world as the King of kings and Lord of lords, as prophesied in the Apocalypse, or book of Revelation—a book that also foretells the dangers of mixing economics, politics and religion in the subjugation of humanity (see Revelation 18).
Indeed, that revelation is a clarion call for the modern world bent on globalizing its trade and peacekeeping, and harmonizing its religions, without truthful reference to the message of that future King of kings.