By Tom Quiner
It began on June 2, 35 years ago yesterday.
The year was 1979 when the Alitalia jetliner set down in a land that time forgot for 123 years of its thousand year history. A Man in White with kind eyes stepped onto the tarmac. He knelt and kissed the earth.
What was he thinking? How did it feel to be back in his motherland?
His next nine days in Poland would change the world. For objective reporters on the scene, he would spark a revolution with 37 well-crafted speeches and sermons, delivered with the intelligence of a scholar and the heart of a poet.
To the man on the street, it was more than just the words. It was the power behind the words. It was the power defined by their shared religion, language, and literature. It was the power of the Polish culture.
It was the power of hope.
What was this culture like? A gathering of local Polish-Americans here in Des Moines shared memories of their life in Poland with me. In every instance, their Catholic heritage was in the forefront.
Artur Golebeiwski owns the Best Western Inn & Suites in West Des Moines. He told me how Catholic masses were scheduled all day long on Sundays in Poland. And they were standing-room only. He said you wouldn’t even think of getting married in the month of May. The churches just weren’t available because of all of the first communion masses taking place throughout that month.
Ewa Domagala Pratt, a professor at DMACC, talked about how everyone walked to Sunday mass. Few owned cars and mass transit didn’t run on Sundays. The scene on Sunday mornings was pedestrian-packed streets with the same destination: the Catholic church.
This is the culture that animated Poland when the Man in White, the son of a soldier, arrived at Victory Square in the heart of Warsaw on that fateful day in 1979. Victory Square is the site for the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. It is revered in Poland.
All in attendance for the Mass about to be said had most likely walked to get there, all one million of them! Needless to say, the Communist government was concerned. In anticipation of large public gatherings, they put in place 67,000 security forces. Interestingly, 20,000 of them were undercover.
George Czerwinksi was in the Polish Air Force then, living in Krakow. (Today he’s a corporate pilot for Meredith Corporation here in Des Moines.) He related to me that he saw a military truck drive past him. Leaning out the window was an undercover security agent dressed as a priest!
All that security wasn’t to protect the Man in White, but to protect the communists from the people. They feared an uprising.
If you were a Pole standing in the crowd of one million that day at Victory Square, your heart was in your throat. Your beloved friend was home, and his words astounded.
In the heart of Godless communism, he said: “To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ.”
Even more, he said that “Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness.” And with his kind eyes ablaze, he said, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”
Days of endless applause followed. Despite the Communists best efforts to suppress his schedule, the crowds swelled to three million by the time he reached Krakow a week later. There, he invoked Poland’s rich thousand year history and culture.
The summer of hope continued. Ten years later, almost to the day, Lech Walesa, a member of the Solidarity Labor Union, was elected President of Poland as communism began to crumble.
The summer of hope continues, as Poland today is a stable democracy.
Ask any Pole. They’ll tell you World War II ended and communism fell on the same day, June 2, 1979, the summer of hope. That was the day Karol Wojtya, also known as Pope John Paul II, came home.
[I’m re-running this Quiner’s Diner post in commemoration of Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland on June 2nd, 1979. His trip truly was the 9 days that changed the world.]