The year 2020 marks the centennial of John Paul II, the 100th birthday of Karol Wojtyła, future Pope, poet, Polish patriot and saint. He was born in a Poland where Mary was revered as the Eternal Mother and the regnant Queen, and the love of country was a function of the love of God. The world was at war.
Only a few weeks after he was born, a battle was to be fought that would determine the future of Western civilisation and the survival of his Polish homeland. The war and the battle are so little known in the West, one could hardly believe that the world in which the future Pope would live hung in the balance. It was Poland’s first encounter with Soviet Communism.
Barely reconstituted after 123 years of captivity and still trying to secure its borders, Poland was attacked by Bolshevik Russia. Victorious at home, Lenin was determined to spread his Communist revolution, like a contagion, into Western Europe. The newly reborn Polish republic stood in his way. Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky rallied the Red Army soldiers to remove that obstacle and make history in Berlin and beyond: “Soldiers of the workers’ revolution – turn your eyes to the west. The fate of world revolution is being decided in the west. Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration”, he told his troops. “On our bayonets we will carry happiness and peace to working humanity. To the West, to decisive battles, to great victories!”1
They carried no happiness or peace on their bayonets, but misery and destruction. Like Huns, the Red Army soldiers were brutal, creative in their cruelty, and effective. And they seemed unstoppable. In a conflict that felt like a battle of civilisations where men of faith and honour faced down an enemy for whom nothing and no one was sacred, the Poles fought fiercely against an overwhelming Soviet force, praying for divine intervention. Inspired by the lyrics of their national anthem, “Poland is not yet lost while we still live”, more than 100,000 volunteers of all ages from both sides of the Atlantic joined the war effort.
On 15 August 1920, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw, across the river from the capital city. By all accounts, what happened next was no simple military victory, though strategy, courage and extraordinary good fortune all played a role: the fledgling Polish Army outmanoeuvred the invading Soviets and defeated Tukhachevsky’s troops. The battle would be recorded in Polish history books as the Miracle on the Vistula; Stalin, who was personally involved in the campaign, would never forgive the humiliation and exact his revenge against the young Polish cadre 20 years later in the Katyń Forest massacre of Poland’s officer corps.
The official commemoration of the Battle of Warsaw would be forbidden under Communist rule, but Karol Wojtyła and others his age would forever be known as the 1920 generation: those lucky ones, born and raised in Free Poland, brought up in faith, love of homeland, respect for courage, and a reverence for the fallen who died for their country’s independence, the sons and daughters of the nation that was cruelly tested by history but ultimately prevailed. The men and women of the 1920 generation never took their freedom for granted and knew that the time may come – as it did all too soon – when it would be for them to pay the necessary price so that their nation might live. Many years later, Pope John Paul II reflects on it in his poem, “Thinking My Country”:
Where is the dividing-line between those generations who paid too little and those who paid too much?
On which side of that line are we?
The sense of gratitude – for the divine intercession in the decisive battle of Warsaw and for the human courage needed to bequeath on the 1920 generation the legacy of freedom – was forever a part of the Pope’s own memory and identity. He admired the national tradition of selfless sacrifice, the history and literature that inspired it, the spirit of the nation and love of country that asks for nothing in return. Those themes and qualities are consistently present throughout the writings of young Karol Wojtyła, his more mature poetry and dramas, and the writings of the Polish Pope. He focuses in particular on the nation and the role of culture in each nation’s life. He also focuses on each nation’s shared legacy.
While John Paul II writes and speaks as a witness to his own, Polish culture and nation, it is his intense sense of national identity that helps him to observe and understand the patriotism of others. Like a family, he is never tired of reminding us, a nation is a natural (and not imagined!) community.
As each nation creates a repository of culture, it enriches the treasure trove of national cultures in which we all partake, all trying to answer one question: the meaning of human existence. And the Pope explains that “at the heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God”. Papal encyclicals, speeches, sermons, memoirs and letters consistently explore the concepts of nation, patriotism and culture in theological terms, so it is surprising to see it so little understood. Some political commentators even refer to the Polish Pope, without a sense of irony, as a “globalist”. But the pope’s own words in a speech at UNESCO in 1980 should correct any misperceptions about his commitment to national identity and sovereignty:
I am the son of a nation which has lived the greatest experiences of history, which its neighbours have condemned to death several times, but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity, and it has kept, in spite of partitions and foreign occupations, its national sovereignty, not relying on the resources of physical power, but solely relying on its culture. This culture turned out in the circumstances to be more powerful than all other forces […]. There exists a fundamental sovereignty of society which is manifested in the culture of the nation. It is a question of the sovereignty through which, at the same time, man is supremely sovereign.
Reflecting on a widespread tendency to move toward supranational structures, the Pope conceded that the issue raises: “legitimate questions”, and yet:
Yet it still seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities […] “natural” societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension […]. The cultural and historical identity of any society is preserved and nourished by all that is contained within this concept of “nation”.2
This “fundamental sovereignty” that manifests itself in each nation nation’s cultural heritage expresses the dignity of the nation, of its people, and of each individual human person. To make his point, John Paul II is deliberately uses an example of a nation without political power, for more than a century without a state, and yet with a culture that sustained it – like an army: culture gave the spirit of that nation the will and desire to fight for independence, to regain its sovereignty, and eventually to win back political and economic freedom.
When it comes to economic freedom, it should not be suppressed, as the Marxists would have it, but it should never come at the expense of culture, because culture is what binds a nation together – where the nation lives. And so the most pressing question for John Paul II is how best to “respect the proper relationship between economics and culture without destroying this greater human good for the sake of profit”. While an opponent of Marxism, the Pope did not accept market economy uncritically, either. If a worker is robbed of dignity and the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the good of his nation and of humanity, then “it matters little […] whether this kind of tyranny is imposed by Marxist totalitarianism or by Western Liberalism”.3
The dehumanizing tyranny of Marxist totalitarianism was a theme John Paul II took up in 1983, during his second pilgrimage to his homeland after Poland’s Communist regime imposed martial law to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement.
“There is no freedom without Solidarity”, the Pope intoned, as the crowd in Warsaw cheered, hearing the name of the outlawed trade union loud and clear and relishing the moments of respite from the daily censors and riot police. “I learned that from you”, the Holy Father replied to the cheers, and the crowd cheered all the more. With the Pope at home, Poland felt free.
Freedom was the Polish pope’s heritage, that gift he received as an infant from the volunteers of 1920. John Paul II was preoccupied with freedom: the necessity and the price of it, its role in the history of a nation and, above all, the role it played in individual and national salvation through self-sacrifice. This preoccupation was part of the tradition with which he was imbued as a child and young man. It was in the water and in the air; the future pope breathed it and felt responsible for it as he was growing up. It was what formed and prepared him for the totalitarian forge of the Old World’s darkest hour that was yet to come under Hitler and Stalin, just as Karol Wojtyła was coming of age: the time of monsters and saints, when Satan walked the Earth. As one in five Poles was dying, and those who were Jewish were destined for total extermination, as priests were being executed for their vocation, it is then that the future pontiff chose priesthood and joined a clandestine seminary. Decades later, Karol Cardinal Wojtyła would take that difficult period of his education in faith and the history of his native land with him to Rome.
John Paul II freely admitted that his knowledge of the value of the “nation” necessarily came from his experience as a Pole and a Slav, knowing and seeing in his pilgrimages that his personal testimony on the role of culture in the life of a nation acquired a universal dimension. In his speech before the United Nations in 1995, he assumes the role of a witness to defend the culture of freedom – wise freedom – and every nation’s right to sovereignty.
I come before you as a witness: a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence.
Then, as a witness, he makes the case for the culture of freedom and dignity, in which individuals and nations discover the truth about themselves and thrive, not as natural creatures conditioned, pushed and pulled by urges but as human beings who chose to act freely by following their conscience with intelligence and free will:
We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The “answer” to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social “model” on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilisation of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty. And the “soul” of the civilisation of love is the culture of freedom: the freedom of individuals and the freedom of nations, lived in self-giving solidarity and responsibility.
In a modern world of radical individualism free of any social bonds and obligations, John Paul II proposes individual and national freedom with “self-giving solidarity and responsibility”. In a passage that reads like Europe’s future past, the Pontiff warns against uniformity, against “coercion” and “repression”, against “the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world”. John Paul II’s entire papacy was about encouraging the multiplicity of national voices and traditions, about “treasure trove of cultures”, each one of which is precious and unique; it was about national particularism, nations free to chart their own course though anchored in a moral absolute.
Given his experience as a witness of Nazism and Communism – two totalitarian regimes competing in brutality to destroy the dignity of the human person and the concept of national sovereignty – it is not surprising that as Pope, John Paul II became a champion of freedom and all nations’ right to their distinct cultural identity, their right to write their own history, as they remember it, and not as those who seek to dominate them would want it told. In Memory and Identity John Paul II explains that “man has the capacity to reflect on his history and objectify it”. Nations, he says, like individuals, are “endowed with historical memory”. When they record what they remember, their “history becomes historiography”, a history of the nation and its genealogy. It is more than a record of the collective memory of a people – it becomes an essential element of culture, the element which determines the nation’s identity and is inseparable from the language in which it is expressed. Along with the historical memory it records, that common language binds the nation together. History, culture, language and land connect the material and the spiritual aspect of the nation. Because of the deep bond between the nation’s culture and its territory, an act of violence against the land awakens the spirit of the nation which then “takes on new vitality and struggles to restore the rights of the land”. This rising up to reclaim the land taken, defend one’s country, desire to make it whole if attacked, comes from love of the homeland and the need to protect it, not the hatred of the attacker. That restoration of “the rights of the land” and freedom – a nation writing its own history according to its own memories, using its own language, and living in accordance with its conscience – what the captive nations of Europe longed for before 1989 and since then, and the Polish Pope not only articulated but championed their right to be free.
The nation longs to be free, just like the individuals who are its constituent parts. John Paul II explains that the source of this freedom is divine and eternal: “Through God you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son then an heir”, a free man. Through Christ, each of us partakes of the divine patrimony, the “heritage of the eternal Father”, enriched by the gifts of Mary the mother. And so “the Gospel gave a new meaning to the concept of native land […] The inheritance we receive from Christ orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures towards the eternal homeland.”4
John Paul II comprehends the price of freedom – he watched history exact an unspeakable price on his own homeland, and the experience made him fully embrace the love of country as something that unites every nation, not divides; that this love is “a measure of man’s nobility”, put to a test throughout a nation’s history, as he wrote in his Letter to the People of Poland on 23 October 1978). It is this concept of a nation being tested almost to a breaking point that gives John Paul II’s understanding of national identity and patriotism a theological dimension. Israel, the Pope reminds us in Memory and Identity, is the only nation whose history is recounted in the Bible and which forms part of divine Revelation. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, however, “the history of all nations is called to take its place in the history of salvation”, in “New Jerusalem” among the People of God, where “every nation has equal rights of citizenship”.5
And there is more. John Paul II points to the origins of our understanding of the family, man and woman, nation, history, culture, familial love, even beauty in the Book of Genesis. The same Book of Genesis also describes our mission as human beings. The famous passage, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea” (Gen. 1:28) has another, deeper meaning. The Pope tells us, it is “the earliest and most complete definition of human culture”.6 But it also contains a description of our task as human beings, both men and women: to find the truth about being human and about the world. Our freedom, then, the freedom that is our divine inheritance that John Paul II defended as our individual birthright and the right of nations, is to be used in an honest pursuit of truth. “To subdue and have dominion”7 means to discover the objective reality of creation, discover its beauty, find the truth and understand it, and, in the process, learn to understand yourself, others, and the world around you. And learn to understand the gift of creation that God has given us.
Ironically, just as John Paul II anchors the theology of the nation and family in the Bible, Europe is busy doing the opposite – cutting its Judeo-Christian roots, removing God from its institutions and public spaces, and liberating reason from the constraints of common sense. In October 1988, Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament on that subject: “[S]ince certain currents of thought have developed on European soil that have slowly removed God from the understanding of the world and man”, believers and “the proponents of an agnostic, and sometimes even an atheistic, humanism” are in a state of constant and seemingly irreconcilable tension. Indeed, obedience to God as a source of true freedom, “a freedom for truth and good” and obedience to man who sees only himself as an end of all things – essentially usurping God – are hardly compatible. Ethics based on social consensus is relativist quicksand where the only constraint imposed on individual freedom may possibly be safeguarding the freedom of others. Given that, the highest function of the law becomes to protect all citizens’ freedom of conscience equally. For that, the essential distinction between “the political community to which all citizens necessarily belong”, and “the religious community, to which believers freely adhere” must be respected. From the perspective of the EU in 2020, John Paul II’s warning against utopian error articulated in 1988 sounds uncannily prescient:
After Christ, it is no longer possible to idolise society as a collective greatness that devours the human person and his inalienable destiny. Society, the State and political power belong to the changing and always perfectible framework of this world. No plan of society will ever be able to establish the Kingdom of God, that is, eschatological perfection, on this earth. Political messianism most often leads to the worst tyrannies.
With only words but no armies at his disposal, the Pope posited the divine absolute of truth and freedom against the onslaught of militant atheist relativism and hate; he wagered moral courage against brute strength. He gave a voice and hope to the captive nations of Eastern Europe and enshrined the love of homeland – on any continent, captive or free – into divine moral law. Everywhere he went, he kissed the ground, as he explained, “out of respect for the divine creation, for the sons and daughters of the land where I come as a pilgrim”. He preached “theology of the nation”, anchored in Sacred Scripture and the Ten Commandments, showing that a sense of belonging to a community, national identity, culture and tradition are aspects of faith, not politics, and express themselves in religion. He taught us that in honouring our country, we honour our ancestors and our parents, we express gratitude for the life that they had given us and for the freedom that they had shielded for us. The Biblical story of Abraham, of the biological and spiritual ancestor of religions and nations, “illustrates how the road to nationhood passes through ‘generation’, via the family and the clan”. Here the Holy Father cautions against confusing the nation with the state, and even more with the so-called “democratic society”, which is closer to the state. Nation pre-exists society and state; it “designates a community based in a given territory and distinguished from other nations by its culture”. According to Catholic social doctrine, the family and the nation are both natural societies, not mere conventions or constructs. It is natural to love them and noble to sacrifice for them.
It is the papal teachings on love of country that so resonated with John Paul II’s successor, Cardinal Ratzinger. A Polish priest, Fr. Jerzy Szymik, recalled a Vatican prayer that future Benedict XVI led only days before his own election to the throne of St Peter, in which he addressed the departed John Paul II in supplication:
Teacher of patriotism, pray for us.8
A German and a witness to the 20th-century horrors, a man of faith, he asked for the prayers of the Polish Pope who taught him to love his country. Germany could be loved, embraced like a mother. To Benedict it was home, as Poland was to John Paul II, and that love – the love of country – is the most noble love, anchored in the absolute of Sacred Scripture, but with all its national particulars of language, culture, history, tradition and people. That love is an expression of the love of the shepherd for his flock: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11), as Cardinal Ratzinger explains in his homily during the funeral Mass for John Paul II, trying to capture the departed Pope’s understanding of his priestly vocation.
That love is the legacy Saint John Paul left for us, his Theology of the Nation. It is a way back home.
1 Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Speech to the troops, 2 July 1920. Quoted in Mirosław Szumiło, “Battle of Warsaw, 1920”. https://ipn.gov.pl/en/news/4397,Battle-of-Warsaw-1920.html
2 Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, p. 74.
3 Idem, p. 96.
4 Idem, pp. 68–69.
5 Idem, p. 81.
6 Idem, p. 91.
7 Idem, p. 91.
8 Fr. Jerzy Szymik, “John Paul II on the Love of Homeland”. https://www.gosc.pl/doc/4751137.Jan-Pawel-II-o-milosci-do-ojczyzny