We mourn the passing of our beloved Pope John Paul II, the end of an era.
He brought hope to the Polish people and was instrumental in bringing freedom from communist tyranny to the nations of Eastern Europe.
More than any other Pope in history, He traveled to all continents
bringing together peoples of different faiths with a message that
the rich and powerful must provide assistance and support to the poor
and weak. He devoted great effort to bridging the differences between
the various religions of the world, in particular between the Catholic
church and Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox.
His great leadership in these matters far outweighs any criticism
some have had against his unwillingness to progress beyond some of the
rigid principals established by Church leaders centuries ago, which are not directly attributable to the teachings of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels.
The unprecedented participation of leaders of the entire world, not only Catholic nations, at His funeral is the best proof of the universal recognition of His greatness. 200 national leaders, kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, Rabbis and Imams came to Rome to pay their respects in person. Among them were the presidents of Israel, Syria, Iran and many Arab leaders. An estimated four million pilgrims arrived in Rome by plane, train, bus, car and bicycle - especially significant was the participation of young people in their teens and twenties. It was noted that during the Mass the presidents of Syria and Israel shook hands in a sign of peace.
Also unprecedented was the live television coverage of the three hour long ceremony not only by networks of Christian countries, but also by the networks of Jewish Israel, Moslem Egypt, Emirates, Pakistan and Al-Jazeera, Hindu India, Buddhist Thailand and Taiwan. In fact it was notable that the only major countries that did not carry the live coverage were China and Russia.
Truly John Paul II has elevated the role of the Pope as the moral leader of the world to such height that it will be difficult for any future Pope to match.
In His memory I attach some personal recollections, written on the
occasion of his 25th anniversary.
I well remember October 16, 1978. I was in the shower in our apartment in Athens, Greece, when my wife Lili called out, "The Cardinals have elected a Pole to be Pope!"
I thought she was joking, quickly I stepped out of the shower and wrapped in a towel listened to the radio broadcast on the BBC.
Neither of us remembered the name Karol Wojtyla, we did not pay much attention to church news. We knew that a Polish archbishop from Cracow had been made cardinal back in 1967, but had long forgotten about him. That a non-Italian could become a Pope was in itself outstanding; that this honor should be given to a Pole was unbelievable. During the next couple of days family and friends called from all over Europe and America to discuss this miracle with us. None of us foresaw that this amazing event started the chain reaction that led to the total collapse of Communism within 11 years, without any military intervention and with virtually no loss of life.
A few days later we both went to Poland that was still under the harsh control of the Communists and firmly under the thumb of their Soviet masters. Since the unrest and strikes in 1970, Gierek had been the prime minister and secretary of the Polish Communist Party. In an effort to stave off the increasing protests of the population, he had somewhat loosened the reins and to gain foreign money to prop up the bankrupt economy of the country, he had opened up the borders to foreign trade and to easier movement across the borders. Since 1972 I had made a number of visits and was successful in obtaining a number of small contracts from agencies of the Polish communist government for my American company.
This time the atmosphere in Warsaw was electric with excitement. On the day of John Paul's investure as the new Pope, October 22, even though it was officially a working day, Warsaw and all other cities in Poland came to a complete standstill. Polish television and radio were forced by public pressure to transmit the ceremonies live from the Vatican, the first time ever that a Mass had been broadcast in any communist country. The streets of Warsaw were totally deserted, only solitary policemen and soldiers walked in the streets, buses and trams were running empty, the entire population was assembled in front of television and radios.
The following year, 1979, the Polish Pope was welcomed in his own country by the Communist leader and hundreds of thousands attended open air Masses in many of the largest Polish cities. This started the steady progress towards the collapse of the Communist regimes in all Eastern Europe. In Poland repressions against the rise of the Solidarity trade union formed by Lech Walesa in Gdansk in 1980, including several years of martial law, could not stem the tide. In 1989 Solidarity was allowed to participate in parliamentary elections and won by a landslide. In August the first non-communist prime minister took over the government. Quickly Czechoslovakia and Hungary followed suit and finally the Berlin Wall came tumbling down November 9, 1989.
The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnew had at the time of John Paul's election disdainfully declared him to be meaningless by asking "How many soldiers does he have in his army? None." This Pope with no army took just 11 years to show that the Soviet Union was a great power standing on legs of straw and to return freedom to occupied and terrorized Poland and other East European nations.