The Revolutionary Conservative Pope

Twenty-five years ago, Poland's people were stunned by the choice of their compatriot, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, as Pope. Some were frightened, others wept with joy. Here, said a prominent writer, was "Poland's second baptism." But even in our euphoria, we did not expect how much the new Pope would change not only Poland, but the world.

His first return visit to his native country soon afterwards showed to all the world the new Pope's power. Communist police disappeared from the main streets of Warsaw, yet the streets became models of order. After decades of disempowerment, Poles suddenly regained their capacity for self-determination. In saying aloud that "there can be no just Europe without an independent Poland on its map," the Pope effectively swept away the unjust postwar settlement that had subjugated Poland to Soviet power.

Then, in Auschwitz, the Pope said: "I speak in the name of everyone whose rights go unrecognized and violated anywhere in the world, I speak because I am bound, we are all bound, by truth." On that spot, that Golgotha of modern times, he called the Poles, who remembered dear ones gassed to death in Auschwitz's crematoria as well as those frozen into glass in Siberia's concentration camps, to a brotherhood devoted to struggle against even justified hatred and revenge.

Some see in the Pope the person responsible for a religious revival; others see a man of peace. Some see a defender of the poor, others a critic of liberation theology. For the people of Poland, John Paul II, by making human rights the central subject of his teaching, will forever be the man who gave us courage and hope, who restored our historical identity.