Foreign Affairs

Why John Paul II Deserves Sainthood

Pope Benedict XVI has urged that his Polish predecessor, John Paul II, be made a Roman Catholic saint, and though canonization is certainly not something to be taken lightly, in this case there is no question that the designation would be more than fitting.

There can scarcely be a more compelling example of a man of God fighting unbridled evil in a way that not only brings great credit to his memory, but starkly demonstrates a practical—and immensely powerful—example of how applied Christian faith can literally redeem the world.

Some review of the circumstances is in order.

Anyone even remotely acquainted with the history of the past century is aware of the monumental roles played by the great Ronald Reagan in overcoming the plague of Soviet-style communism that had ensnared Eastern Europe and a good part of the rest of the globe as well.

In doing so, President Reagan joined storied British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as a truly great 20th-century figure of the first magnitude. Churchill’s courage and fortitude in standing almost alone against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis found a very worthy successor in Mr. Reagan, who stood unwaveringly against Soviet tyranny even with much of world opinion arrayed against him.

However, just as Churchill could never have overcome Hitler without the indispensable support of other heroic figures, neither could Reagan have succeeded in toppling the vaunted Communist monolith alone.

For example, also well-documented in the history of the Cold War is the role played by Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader sufficiently enlightened not to try to forcefully arrest the yearning for freedom that was pouring forth from behind the Iron Curtain.  In doing so, he performed one of the noblest acts ever seen in the often cynical world of international power relations—he signed his own country out of existence, and himself out of power. For this he deserves substantial credit—albeit to a significantly lesser extent than Reagan, who clearly understood the moral bankruptcy of communism and actively worked for its demise.

However, in contrast to the prominence given to Reagan and Gorbachev in bringing about the happy resolution to this saddest of chapters in human history, the role played by John Paul II is far less understood and celebrated.  Nonetheless, it cannot be denied he was an equally indispensable factor in bringing the once-menacing antagonist of freedom to its knees. 

The Pontiff was a man who, like Reagan, displayed the moral courage and resolution of purpose that led to a historic—and seemingly miraculous—triumph of civilization over barbarism.

But his part in the drama was a very different one.

While Reagan’s willingness to engage in a defense build-up that forced the Soviet Union to abandon its aggressive posture and seek genuine conciliation with the West was absolutely crucial to the eventual Cold War triumph, this was in itself not enough.  This is so because although Reagan’s leadership provided the strategic and material resources in the struggle that only a superpower like the United States could muster, there was another equally fundamental element to the plot that only someone in the Polish Pope’s unique position could exploit.

This was the emotional and spiritual dimension so perfectly embodied by the Polish character, so often bloodied but still unbowed over a tempestuous history of falling victim to conquest, partition, and subjection, only to rise again to fight another day.

John Paul II fully epitomized this spirit, palpably breathing life into his countrymen’s’ aspirations for freedom from the yoke of foreign oppression.

From the time of his first historic visit to his native land after assuming his station, he became the catalyst of the Solidarity movement that challenged the authority of the puppet Communist regime in Poland. He remained its chief rallying point, ever animating the resistance in a manner reminiscent of Churchill girding his nation against the murderous onslaught of the Nazis, but also evoking memories of Gandhi peacefully advocating independence for India from British rule, or of Martin Luther King exhorting his followers to civil opposition to racial discrimination in America.

Such tactics had been tried at other places and times, such as in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, only to have the hope occasioned by such movements be crushed by Soviet tanks.  These outrages were then followed by the capitulation of American presidents unwilling to risk incurring the displeasure of their Soviet counterparts.

But this time the qualities inherent in two great leaders—an American President determined to stand up for justice, and a Pope imbued with a gift for inspiring faith and fortitude—fused to bring about a sequence of events all but unprecedented in the annals of history: The defeat of a belligerent and apparently invincible adversary by almost entirely non-violent means.

Indeed, this fusion allowed for the Cold War to be won (as Margaret Thatcher famously stated) “without firing a shot.”

Almost no one supposed such a thing was possible, least of all the oppressors themselves.  Many have reflected on Stalin’s derisive question “How many divisions does the Pope have?” when questioned about how the Vatican would view the enslavement of Eastern Europe.  The answer, as history attests, is that a Pope radiating inner strength and profound conviction—when joined by a political luminary of like mind and character—can change the world for the better in a way that military might alone could never begin to do.

John Paul II was a very divisive figure at times—as were Reagan and Churchill—primarily due to their refusal to betray their deepest convictions in an attempt to placate detractors.  In the Pope’s case, it was his steadfast stand for such traditional Roman Catholic values as honoring the sanctity of life, and observing time-honored standards of morality that provoked the ire of those seeking to redefine those standards in a manner more accommodating to evolving social fashions.

But in the end, the true measure of a great historical figure is often the courage to be true to one’s principles without withering in the face of even the harshest criticism.  (All the more so in this instance because John Paul II clearly believed that the principles he upheld were not merely his own.  Rather, that they emanated from the Almighty, and were therefore not subject to change with every whim of humankind.) Whether one agrees with him or not, it’s all but impossible not to respect such integrity.

Therefore, just as Churchill is revered for continuing to warn of the gathering dangers in Europe to a nation that didn’t want to listen, and then leading the fight for victory, or as Reagan is for persisting in an arms build-up for which he was roundly vilified, but which ended up bringing freedom to half the globe, so too will Pope John Paul II be venerated in history—and should rightly be by the Roman Catholic Church he so faithfully served.

Indeed, not just the church but all of posterity will place him right beside the other two champions of freedom as the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

The human race can only pray that the frightening century recently begun will produce another trio like them.


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