Polish Catholics have a long history of invisibility, even to other Catholics. When I was a kid the Church was Irish and Italian and that was that, with the Italians running the big house in Rome and the Irish in charge of city hall (schools, parishes) over here. Behind the Poles there were probably Slovaks, Croats and God only knew what; but in fact, we could hardly see any of them.
The few Poles I knew personally in the '40s were taciturn (yes, intelligent) and rather grimly private. While the rest of us were celebrating the end of the war, they were silently watching their country being handed over from Hitler to Uncle Joe Stalin. Any of them still misguided enough to think that the war had had something to do with them from 1939 on received a crude lesson in politics. Even the Poles who'd fought for six years in the British Army had no home to show for it after V-E day.
So all in all, American Poles didn't have much to laugh about. I don't know if they supported Joe McCarthy in significant numbers, but they had every excuse to. People who now view "Martyr Joe" (as his friends called him) as a one-man aberration forget how much real resentment was out there for a McCarthy, any McCarthy, to fan. Russian rule meant automatic religious persecution in Eastern Europe -- which, since it wasn't their religion, American WASPs seemed to take philosophically. It only needed Central Casting to come up with an Alger Hiss to get the rancor really rolling. Hiss, right or wrong, looked like the kind of striped pants guy who could stand by while a church or two closed. And Hiss had been an adviser at Yalta, where the Poles and others were consigned to the Gulag.
The awesome Polish capacity for suffering in silence gives a gruesome clue to their national history, as the accordian of Europe, squeezed and expanded by outsiders. They would need this gift once more when they finally surfaced all the way in the American consciousness -- as a joke. "It's okay," a Polish hitchhiker told me, "we recycle the jokes and use them on Italians."
The ironic thing about Polish stoicism is that it landed on a potentially joyous people. When things go right for a change, they can have more fun than a barrel of Swedes, as anyone caught in the middle of the Polish-American day wing-dings can tell you.
Pope John Paul II embodies this spirit in a way that has to hearten Polish-Americans: If a priest can be cheerful behind the Iron Curtain, there's not much excuse for anyone else not to be. In a quaint reversal, an old man (by fairy-tale standards) from the Old World has lightened a load from a bunch of those traditionally optimistic Americans.
He has also, for those touchy about such things, shaken off what's left of that Irish-Italian hierarchy for good, and revealed a Pole doing something that Poles do best: namely, being a Catholic. This may seem petty to outsiders; but centuries of unparalleled loyalty deserves a little recognition.
Beyond that, John Paul II is smiling evidence that life goes on in Poland. Religion would be the breaking point for the Polish spirit: If it snapped, there would be little left to talk about; if it survives, all is possible -- not because religion is a wonder drug, but because it's a test of nerve. Thus the era that began for East Europeans with the brainwashing and discarding of Cardinal Mindszenty ends, we may trust, with this phoenix of a pope.
For all American Catholics, John Paul II is a reminder that this is the church of the immigrants, all of them. If we don't have rampaging anticlericalism over here (we have some, but it doesn't show), this is because Americans do not essentially think of their church as a power-center, as it is in Europe, but as the place you go for help. And if it has become powerful anyway, it's with the power of the ward-heeler or block-captain who started out doing good, but finally grew fat on people's gratitude.
John Paul takes us back to the earlier image: of nuns and priests barely speaking English themselves, but gamely trying to teach it; of a peasant clergy steering a peasant flock through a land strange to both of them; of a clergy much more at home in the slums than on the golf course, more at ease in the sick room than the drawing room. Perhaps this was always more an image than a fact, even then; but simply as a dream, it was a hell of a lot better than the sleek, well-groomed church of the '50s, when plump pastors inveighed against Godless materialism to well-healed parisioners in aseptic churches.
Revisionists will say it was never that bad and that it was never that good, either, and they will be half right as always, that being their trade. All the same, it's good to welcome a pope who looks as if he could have gotten off the boat with the first Polish immigrants, a gut priest with no frills. It's a long time since we've seen that in high places, and you don't have to be Polish to enjoy the change.