April 4, 2005
It's been less than a year since Ronald Reagan "slipped the
surly bonds of earth … to touch the face of God," and now
John Paul II has joined him. Only Margaret Thatcher remains of the
remarkable triumvirate that led the West to victory in the Cold
President Reagan and the pope shared strong convictions about communism. As the pontiff's official biographer, George Weigel, points out, both believed communism was a moral evil, not simply bad economics. Both remained confident that free peoples could overcome the communist challenge -- that victory over communism was possible.
Throughout his long life, whether as a young layman, a priest, or a bishop, whether as Karol Wojtyla or John Paul II, the pope spoke firmly for freedom and against tyranny, taking as his text Christ's words, "Be not afraid."
In the late 1940s and early 1950s -- when actor Ronald Reagan was fighting the communists in Hollywood -- Fr. Wojtyla persistently rebutted efforts by Poland's Stalinist rulers to reinvent the country's history and culture. He visited student dormitories preaching the existence of God and the spiritual character of the human person.
In the 1960s -- when Gov. Reagan was putting down radical-inspired violence on California's campuses -- Bishop Wojtyla reminded Poles that in their thousand-year history they often had "to break through to freedom from the underground."
In the 1970s -- when presidential candidate Reagan persisted in calling the Soviet Union "evil" and an empire -- Cardinal Wojtyla reached out to Polish dissident intellectuals as part of his effort to forge, in the words of George Weigel, "a chain of cultural resistance" to the communist regime. In April 1974, he traveled to Czechoslovakia, where, surrounded by Czech secret police, he attended the funeral of Cardinal Stepàn Trochta, who had spent 10 years in communist prisons.
Wherever he went and wherever he was, the Polish cardinal fearlessly challenged what Vaclav Havel called "a culture of lies." He effectively articulated a Christian alternative to the false humanism of communism.
In June 1979, Pope John Paul II made his first pilgrimage to Poland, a nine-day-visit that produced an awe-inspiring spiritual awakening in Poland and the birth of the Solidarity trade union. Tens of millions of Poles realized that "we are the society and the country is ours." The pope's historic pilgrimage set in motion "a revolution of the spirit" that resulted -- a mere decade later -- in the collapse of communism in eastern and central Europe.
Not even an attempted murder by a professional assassin in May 1981 could stop John Paul II and his campaign for freedom. In 1987, when President Reagan called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall -- the pope spoke for the first time of a Europe united "from the Atlantic to the Urals," reflecting his conviction that communism was finished.
When many commentators fumbled for an explanation of why communism had fallen so suddenly and unexpectedly, the pope offered this reason in January 1990 at his annual meeting with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: "The irresistible thirst for freedom ... brought down walls and opened doors." It was a freedom made possible, he said, because "women, young people and men have overcome their fear."
The extraordinary leader who helped them conquer their fear, who served as an eloquent witness to hope, and who helped topple the empire of lies was John Paul II.
Lee Edwards, is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire