Everybody's Christmas this year is a little bit Polish. For this country is not really protesting against a particular set of actions by a particular party in a particular place. A universal moral matter is at stake -- the matter of humanizing the large, impersonal bureaucratic structures that fill out so much of the background of modern life.
The foremost figure in Christendom today -- the Polish pope, John Paul II -- provided, according to practically everybody here, the inspiration for the movement that has seized this country. How come? Certainly not because he is a liberal, or a revolutionary. On the contrary, on such issues as abortion, divorce and the role of women in the church, John Paul is a crusty traditionalist.
But he stands for a kind of people's Christianity. He has brought home a church that seemed nothing if not hierarchical, distant and formal. He has personified an institution, and made is seem attractive.
There lies the significance of what he calls his "pilgrimages to the people" -- his visits to the consumer societies of Europe and the United States, to the peasant societies of Latin America, to the Islamic society of Turkey. "Don't be afraid. Open your doors to Christ," he said in his first mass as pope. And when he was asked what if felt like to have been selected, he replied, "I feel free."
That kind of freedom -- the freedom to loosen institutional bonds, to break down personal inhibitions, to reach out and touch -- is what the pope brought to Poland on his visit last year. As he put it in a meeting with the Communist leader of the time, Edward Gierek, "The basic mission of the church everywhere and always is to make man better, more conscious of his dignity, fully devoted to his life's tasks -- family, social and patriotic."
Lech Walesa, the shipworker from Gdansk who led the wave of protest that toppled Gierek, has been called the "Son of the Pope," for the movement he came to head promoted a cutting of bonds with the official unions, a deepening of social consciousness and a joining of hands with others. Not for nothing has the free trade union movement here been called "Solidarity."
The victories of Solidarity have now spread its spirit broadly throughout Poland. The Communist Party itself is in the midst of spirited debate about "renewal." In most revolutions," Stepan Bratkowski, a party member who is head of the journalists' union here, said at a dinner the other night, "everybody thinks on the level of the common people. In ours, everybody has been ennobled. Suddenly we are all talking to one another. Anybody who does not talk is not Polish."
No doubt that will seem a far cry from the Christmas of tradition -- from the birth of a Savior, from Good King Wenceslaus and Scrooge and the stockings by the chimney. But every age has its idiom, and its problems, and even its chance of salvation.
Paganism and barbarism, idolatry and the worship of strange gods beset the last days of the ancient world. Salvation then, and for many centuries afterward, lay in self-denial and renunciation -- the way of the saints and of the martyrs.
With the breakdown of feudal society and the onset of industry and city life, grinding poverty became the problem of the Western world. Charity took paramount place as a virtue, and the spirit of giving came to the fore in the Christmas season.
And now? Well, poverty remains. In many parts of the world people go hungry. Paganism and the worship of strange gods is not unknown -- especially among the rich. But for most of us in modern society the agonizing problem is living with organizations.
Large and faceless bureaucracies establish the conditions of life. Food and clothing and shelter depend upon them. They dominate government, corporations and unions. They offer or withhold opportunities for work. They even produce our cultural fare, our amusements and our sports.
So it is fitting in the Christmas season to soften the rigors of organization, to personalize the impersonal, to humanize the machine. That is what Poland, the Christ among nations, is all about these days, and that is why all of us should be offering our prayers for a movement, worldwide in its significance, whose success is by no means assured, and whose failure would be catastrophic.