A Man Who Changed the Course of History
can make a difference: that is the lesson of the life of Pope
John Paul II. If someone had told you, 50 years ago, that the
three men who would do the most to advance human freedom in the
next half century were the parish priest of St. Florian's Church
in Krakow, the military cadet who was the grandson of the last
king of Spain and the star of the recent movie "Bedtime for
Bonzo," you would not have believed him. But so it has been.
History takes surprising turns. And it is often individual men
and women, for good and for evil, who do the steering.
steer in directions not widely anticipated. A half century ago,
it seemed the world was moving toward ever more collectivism and
centralization, toward ever greater secularism and skepticism:
This was modernity, and Marx and Freud were its prophets. Experts
at the top of hierarchical pyramids would determine the course
of events. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes ruled most of
the world's people, and in an age of nuclear weapons, no one could
hope to change that. The best that could be wished for was a convergence
thought something different. He was 19 when Nazi Germany overran
his native Poland; through World War II he worked in a quarry
and acted in clandestine illegal plays. He sheltered Jews and
was once arrested by the Gestapo. Then, after the Red Army swept
into Poland and installed a Communist government, he attended
seminary and became a priest, a bishop and an archbishop. In the
pulpit and out he called for religious freedom and freedom of
conscience, implicitly rebuked a regime built on lies. Today,
we can read about the millions of people murdered by Hitler and
Stalin. Pope John Paul II lived under their rule, but kept his
own mind and conscience free.
when he was 58, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope; he had lived most
of his life under totalitarian governance. This was the same year
in which Juan Carlos I, groomed to be King of Spain by the dictator
Franco, presided over free elections in Spain -- a transition
to democracy that, as Michael Ledeen has written, inspired similar
transitions in other parts of southern Europe and Latin America.
And it was the same year that Ronald Reagan, past retirement age,
was writing radio commentaries and preparing to run for the third
time for president of the United States. This time he would win,
and would put in place policies that did much to end the Soviet
Union and the Communist regimes it supported.
year, the Pope returned to his native Poland and appeared before
crowds of 1 million in Warsaw and Gniezno and Czestochowa. Thirteen
million Poles -- one-third of the nation's population -- saw the
Polish Pope in person. He spoke words of hope and faith, and without
openly advocating the overthrow of the Communist regime made it
clear that it did not hold the people's allegiance. As his biographer
George Weigel wrote, "A revolution of the spirit had been
unleashed." For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries
the Catholic Church had looked askance at democracies and had
seen authoritarian regimes as upholders of the faith. Pope John
Paul II heartily embraced representative democracy and enunciated
a sophisticated appreciation of free markets and their limits.
He engaged in serious moral dialogue and presented a vision of
modernity different from that of the disciples of Marx and Freud.
Solidarity movement that undermined the Communist regime in Poland
have emerged with the courage and hope it did without Pope John
Paul II? Would the Soviet Union have lost its Eastern European
satellites and its very existence without the Pope and Ronald
Reagan? Would Spain have made the transition to demcracy and freedom
and set the example it did without King Juan Carlos I?
be certain of the answers to these counterfactual questions. But
it seems as certain as such things can be that different leaders
would have produced different, and less happy, results. Juan Carlos
lives today the routine life of a constitutional monarch; Ronald
Reagan withdrew from public view as Alzheimer's clouded his vision;
John Paul II, his body wracked with Parkinson's, struggled to
do his duty until the end. This man who lived under Hitler and
Stalin, like the American president and the Spanish king, steered
history in a surprising and felicitous direction, a direction
unforeseen a half century ago.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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