On the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland, Catholic scholar and papal biographer George Weigel wrote:
America’s premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, is not ambiguous in his judgment of what happened next: “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” Professor Gaddis is right: the Nine Days of John Paul II, June 2-10, 1979, were an epic moment on which the history of the 20th century pivoted, and in a more humane direction.
What did John Paul talk about during the Nine Days? He didn’t talk about politics; indeed, beyond the ritual exchanges of formalities with government officials at the arrival ceremony in Warsaw on June 2 and the departure ceremony from Cracow on June 10, the Pope acted as if the Polish communist regime did not exist. Rather, he spoke over, around, and beyond the regime directly to the people of Poland, not about what the world usually understands as power, but about people power — the power of culture and spiritual identity. “You are not who ‘they’ say you are,” the Pope proposed, in a number of variations on the same theme; “let me remind you who you really are.”
During the Nine Days of June 1979, John Paul II gave back to his people their history, their culture, and their identity. In doing so, he gave Poles spiritual tools of resistance that communism could not match. And he did all that by reminding his people that “Poland” began with its 10th century baptism — with its incorporation into the Christian world. That reminder created a moral revolution that eventually brought down the communist god that failed.
In his famous homily in Warsaw Square in June 1979, Pope John Paul II declared, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.” Shorter: Communism is bunk.
Needless to say, that was the beginning of the end for Communism in Poland and, in turn, throughout Europe. The Berlin Wall fell a decade later.
Compare that historical sequence of events to the visit last week of Pope Benedict to Cuba. As Elliott Abrams observed, “The Castro regime took the occasion of the Pope’s visit to sweep up dissidents in a wave of arrests. None of that was surprising, but the Pope’s failure to advance the cause of freedom is sad indeed. The photos of him with Fidel and Raul Castro can only have demoralized those struggling and suffering for freedom in Cuba, for the Pope refused to meet with any dissidents at all. Moreover, his remarks were so carefully phrased that, according to press reports, most Cubans did not view them as a call for freedom — whatever the Pope’s intent.” Pope Benedict did, however, clearly enunciate his opposition to the U.S. trade embargo. No public mention was made about imprisoned American Alan Gross.
It was left to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to call (unsuccessfully) for the Pope to visit with dissidents. Rubio did praise the Pope for “some pretty powerful things when he talks about freedom, when he talks about liberty, when he specifically singles out Marxism.” So maybe the trip was not a total loss.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that the Castro regime didn’t come out ahead on this one. Unlike the Polish Communists who witnessed John Paul II attack the essence of their regime and sound a clarion call for Poles to return to their historical and religious roots, Castro could sleep easy. He’d gotten his PR moment without fretting that Pope Benedict may have helped kindle the flame of freedom. And the criticism of the U.S. trade embargo (already relaxed in a fruitless effort at appeasement) was an added bonus for the aging dictator.
Tragically, while the Poles, Russians and other Eastern European dissidents enjoyed the unwavering support of Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s, today’s democracy advocates in Cuba and elsewhere have Pope Benedict and President Obama, neither of whom seem keen on rocking the boat or rattling the cages of tyrannical regimes.