The Pope’s Polish odyssey

Peter Lewis June 27 1983

The Pope’s Polish odyssey

Peter Lewis June 27 1983

The Pope’s Polish odyssey


Peter Lewis

He was met with flowers and guns. On the broad boulevards of Warsaw hundreds of thousands of Poles held up banners and flowers as they prayerfully awaited the passing of his motorcade. On the side streets riotequipped police patrols stood ready for any threat. When Pope John Paul II arrived in Poland last week to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Black Madonna, the country’s most sacred religious icon,he came not only as the passionate defender of the Roman Catholic Church in a Communist country but also as a powerful voice of opposition against his nation’s military rule. And he came armed with eloquence and a sharp rebuke. In the most pivotal of his 18 foreign pastoral trips since he became pontiff five years ago, John Paul immediately made it clear that he had arrived with a message.

Shortly after his Alitalia Airlines DC10 jet emblazoned with the papal insignia touched down on June 16, the pontiff delivered a sermon in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral containing a clear message of support for the outlawed Solidarity trade union movement. With fervor and directness he addressed “those who are most acutely tasting the bitterness of disappointment, humiliation, suffering, of being wronged, of having their dignity trampled upon.” Polish military authorities, who had expressed the hope that the Pope would stick to religious matters during his eight-day tour of cities and holy shrines, were taken aback by his strong political tone. But there was more. The next morning, in a televised meeting with Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, John Paul delivered a virtual liberation manifesto. He told Jaruzelski that he wanted the 1980 Gdansk accords, which cleared the way for the rise of Solidarity, “gradually put [back] into effect.” He called for a return to the “principles so painstakingly worked out in the critical days of August, 1980,” in the shipyard city of Gdansk. He appealed for the release of all political prisoners. And he lectured the general on “the important share of responsibility that lies upon each one of you before history and before your conscience.” For his part, Jaruzelski claimed that martial law had saved a divided Poland from a bloodbath. “We do not,” he told John Paul, “fear history’s verdict.” The

hostility between the two men was palpable. After their speeches they stood awkwardly side by side, trading only a few stilted words as they stiffly examined the paintings they had exchanged as gifts. Jaruzelski made one attempt to smile at the Pope, but the usually genial pontiff did not respond.

In his two-hour meeting with Jaruzelski the Pope did manage to win one major concession. At his personal request, the regime backed away from its earlier refusal to allow the Pope to meet

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. Government spokesman Jerzy Urban said that the regime had agreed to the meeting for “humanitarian reasons,” but he made it clear that there will be no change in the regime’s opposition to Walesa. Then he accused Walesa, who was imprisoned for 11 months last year, of deliberately seeking confrontation. “Lech Walesa is not and will not be a partner for us,” he insisted. John Paul’s second visit to Poland as Pope was clearly a gamble for both the nation’s nervous and unpopular military regime and the 63-year-old spiritual leader of the world’s 580 million Roman Catholics. After 18 months of demoralizing

military control the Poles were ready for the Pope’s defiant words. After his first sermon in Warsaw roughly 20,000 marchers paraded through the streets of the city, chanting “Solidarity” and “The Pope is with us.” At one critical moment the exuberant crowd reached the headquarters of the Communist Party’s central committee, only to face a row of shield-bearing security forces—Poland’s crack ZOMO troops. After a tense standoff, police used loudspeakers to disperse the crowd.

Although the episode ended without violence, military authorities feared that Solidarity supporters would stage larger demonstrations this week in the belief that the Pope’s presence gives them a degree of protection. If violence should erupt, it will likely take place when the Pope visits the towns of Katowice, Wroclaw and Nowa Huta, all Solidarity bastions where bloody clashes have taken place between police and workers. Indeed, the Pope himself appeared concerned about the effects of his words. At an open-air mass in a soccer stadium attended by at least half a million worshippers—a third of Warsaw’s population—his sermon was noticeably restrained. And at the end of it he cautioned the crowd to go home quietly. “Let my pilgrimage bring calm and peace and love to Poland,” he asked.

The stakes were high for everyone involved in the papal mission. Since the rise of the independent trade union movement three years ago, Poland’s leaders have struggled to dismantle Solidarity and curb the defiant spirit of its 10 million members. With the imposition of martial law in December, 1981, and the banning of Solidarity 10 months later, authorities have enfeebled the movement. Hundreds of Solidarity sympathizers have been jailed, and, according to church officials, an estimated 4,000 political prisoners are still in Polish prisons. But the government’s strong-arm tactics have isolated the authorities in a nation where many citizens traditionally have doubted the legitimacy of a Communist regime. For Poland’s workers, the Pope’s visit represented a long-searched-for opportunity to revive the spirit that inspired their earlier defiance. With their own voices silenced by law, the Pope has become the only messenger of resistance.

For Jaruzelski, on the other hand, the Pope’s visit offered an opportunity for the government to acquire the patina of

acceptability at home and abroad. The country is laboring under a massive $26-billion (U.S.) debt to the West, and the Polish leader has made virtually no headway in his efforts to inspire the embittered workers to make the kind of sacrifices necessary to pull the nation out of its economic quagmire. Specifically, the regime hopes that any goodwill arising out of the agreement to allow a papal tour might persuade Western banks to ease the repayment terms on Poland’s debt. Jaruzelski also wants Western nations to lift the economic sanctions that they imposed on Poland after martial law was declared.

In that regard the Pope was hardly reassuring. In his televised meeting with Jaruzelski, John Paul put the onus for an end to sanctions on Poland’s rulers. Pointedly avoiding any direct appeal to Western powers, the Pope instead urged the general to create the right conditions to permit the lifting of sanctions.

Jaruzelski had carefully weighed the enormous risk involved in allowing the visit of the popular Polish-born Pope, who has openly championed the Solidarity cause from the Vatican. Even before John Paul’s arrival, the military leaders sent the pontiff a clear message not to stir up antigovernment sentiment. Indeed, the Polish leadership suggested that the final lifting of martial

law might depend on the good behavior of the Pope. Last week Poland’s deputy premier, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, told reporters, “If John Paul takes a stand in his statements that will further stabilization, then he will be making a positive contribution to the lifting of martial law.”

Rakowski’s veiled threat in many ways underscored the difficult balancing act that the Pope faced on his tour. In his desire to advance the cause of those struggling against the military authorities, he also had to avoid giving the regime an excuse for prolonging the current repression. At the same time,

the pontiff seemed anxious to restore the respect that the Polish Catholic church has lost in the past year under the leadership of Jozef Cardinal Glemp. Glemp, who replaced the much-revered and powerful Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski as Polish primate in 1981, has been criticized by members of the clergy and by ordinary Poles for being too cooperative with the regime. But John Paul knows that if the church becomes the visible centre of opposition, the authorities may turn against it.

Those tensions were evident throughout the trip. Officials claimed that they were maintaining tight security because they were anxious to protect the Pope against possible assassi-

nation attempts. In the past two years the Pope has been the target of two attacks. One of them, the near-fatal shooting by a Turkish extremist, has been linked with the Soviet KGB by Italian authorities, although the allegations have not been proven. But the presence of armed police also served as a warning to overzealous demonstrators. On the motorcade route from the airport, police took up positions at 10-yard intervals and two carloads of heavily armed guards accompanied the Pope’s bulletproof vehicle.

Poland has suffered through profound changes since the Pope’s last visit

in 1979. In that time the Solidarity movement has risen and been crushed. In 1980 the workers fought bitter strikes in shipbuilding towns like Gdansk and mining towns like Katowice for the right to have a voice in the operation of the workplace. And in August, 1980, Solidarity and the government of Edward Gierek signed the now famous Gdansk agreements, which gave workers their first glimpse of a socialist state in which they had at least some limited power. For 16 months, despite obvious government unease, Solidarity flourished under Walesa’s charismatic leadership, attracting a broad base of support from factory and maintenance workers, academics and professionals.

At one time the movement included roughly one million of Poland’s threemillion-member Communist Party.

The imposition of martial law ended the workers’ brief experiment with democracy. Since then the economy has continued to deteriorate. Real family incomes have dropped 25 per cent in the past year. Food lineups have shortened, partly because many Poles can no longer afford the limited supplies that are for sale. Church officials report that 30 per cent of the Polish people can no longer buy all the food that is allotted to them on their ration cards.

The government has also used consumer items as a lever to win workers’ cooperation. For one thing, children’s shoes, a scarce and much-demanded commodity, can only be obtained through the new government-sanctioned unions set up to replace Solidarity.

Currently, the Polish people are enmeshed in an introspective debate over the causes of the fall of Solidarity and over the kinds of compromises that must be made between the push for greater freedom and the avoidance of an even fiercer clampdown by the authorities. That debate is crystallized in the Catholic church. Many hard-liners within the church want it to play a more active role in pressuring the military regime to loosen its iron grip. But the church, which claims the loyalty of more than 90 per cent of Poland’s 36 million people, also has a long tradition of surviving by cautiously co-operating with the government.

Even the much respected Wyszynski, who fought for the church’s right to exist under the postwar Communist regimes, was prepared to compromise at times. For instance, in August, 1980, he urged striking workers in the Gdansk shipyards to return to their jobs.

Wyszynski’s successor, Glemp, has incurred the wrath of many both inside and outside the church for his conciliatory approach. Last fall he personally pleaded with members of the indepen-

dent actors’ association to end their boycott of national television—an action that they launched following the December, 1981, imposition of martial law. And many Poles blame Glemp for the collapse of a crucial strike last November to protest the outlawing of Solidarity. Two days before the strike was

scheduled to take place, Glemp stunned the nation when he issued a joint statement with Jaruzelski expressing “common concern for maintaining and consolidating calm, social harmony and work.” Indeed, the archbishop may have urged the workers to stay on the job in exchange for an ironclad agreement that John Paul be allowed

to make this current papal visit.

The church’s role has been complicated by the personal involvement of the Pope, who has taken a keen interest in relations between the Vatican and Poland. Some reports indicate that the Pope was angered by Glemp’s co-operative stance. Others argue that the Pope must have approved the archbishop’s agreement with Jaruzelski last November because it fol lowed a 10-day visit by the primate to the Vatican. Some church critics insist that the main concern of both Glemp and the Pope is not the success of Solidarity but the survival of the church itself in Foland.

The pontiff made it clear in his speeches in Poland that he supports the workers’ cause. While John Paul has always been an outspoken pope, his strong activist position on the current trip exceeded any positions that he has taken elsewhere on his travels. Certainly his message to Central America—the other trouble spot to which he has turned his attention—has been far more equivocal. In that war-torn part of the world he has spoken out in favor of the rights of workers and peasants. In Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1979, he told 40,000 native Indians, “You have a right to throw down the barriers of exploitation.” At the same time, he has consistently opposed the “theology of liberation”—the notion that the church should be in the vanguard of the movement for social justice.

But even the strong stance taken by the Pope in Poland disappointed many Poles who wanted him to be even more outspoken. Some, in fact, seemed ready to push events beyond the steady, step-by-step approach to greater freedom advocated by the Pope. As John Paul entered the volatile bastions of the Solidarity movement this week, he carried with him the pressing weight of a nation’s hopes and fears.

Linda McQuaig