Saturday, April 9, 2005

John Paul the Great

Those amongst my readers who know me well know that I am not a religious man. Further, they may know that I have some particular antipathy toward the Roman Catholic church — based, I hasten to explain, on my reading of the church's history and not at all on any personal experience.

Nonetheless, I find a great deal to admire about Karol Wojtyla, the man who became a priest and eventually Pope John Paul II. Much of the commentary I've read since his death, while full of the expected adulation, missed the mark in terms of what I found admirable about the man. This column, by Joseph Bottum (writing in the Weekly Standard) is directly on point from my perspective. An excerpt describing the incident that first caused me to express admiration for any Pope:

And yet, however weak the Communist edifice may have been in actuality, it still seemed formidable, and the pope was at the center of the cyclone that blew it down. The KGB's Yuri Andropov foresaw what John Paul II would be, warning the Politburo in Moscow of impending disaster in the first months after the Polish cardinal became pope. Figures from Mikhail Gorbachev to Henry Kissinger have looked back on their careers and judged that the nonviolent dissolution of the Communist dictatorships would not have happened without John Paul II.

"How many divisions has the pope?" Stalin famously sneered. As it happens, with John Paul II, we have an answer. At the end of 1980, worried by the Polish government's inability to control the independent labor union Solidarity, the Russians prepared an invasion "to save socialist Poland." Fifteen divisions — twelve Soviet, two Czech, and one East German — were to cross the border in an initial attack, with nine more Soviet divisions following the next day. On December 7, Brzezinski called from the White House to tell John Paul II what American satellite photos showed about troop movements along the Polish border, and on December 16 the pope wrote Leonid Brezhnev a stern letter, invoking against the Soviets the guarantees of sovereignty that the Soviets themselves had inserted in the Helsinki Final Act (as a way, they thought, of ensuring the Communists' permanent domination of Eastern Europe). Already caught in the Afghanistan debacle and fearing an even greater loss of international prestige and good will, Brezhnev ordered the troops home. Twenty-four divisions, and John Paul II faced them down.

Do yourself a favor and savor the whole column, slowly and carefully...

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