Inspiration for freedom

Fourteen years ago today, a man died who was as responsible for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union as any other figure of the 20th century.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, was born in Poland in 1920. He entered a seminary in 1942 and was ordained a priest in 1946. He became a professor of moral theology and social ethics — and began a fast ascent in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

At the young age of 38, he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. Then he rose to archbishop and participated vigorously in the workings of the early 1960s Second Vatican Council. He was named a cardinal in 1967.

Wojtyla was an outspoken advocate for religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain. He drew the attention and the wrath of Eastern Europe’s communist leaders.

According to “This Day in History,” Cardinal Wojtyla once was asked if he feared retribution from communist leaders. He replied, “I am not afraid of them. They are afraid of me.” And they had good reason to be.

In 1978, Wojtyla became the first non-Italian pope since 1523. He was only 58 years old — the youngest man to hold the position in 132 years. He immediately began to give voice to a philosophy that would inspire Lech Walesa and the participants of the union movement Solidarity that eventually brought about communism’s demise in Europe.

“Catholic Straight Answers” talks about these thoughts in the young pope’s first encyclical (Redemptor hominis):

“(The) curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but is, above all, an attack on man’s very dignity. . . . (It is) a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep in man, what is authentically human. . . . It is therefore difficult . . . to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life while believers are barely tolerated . . . or are even entirely deprived of the rights of citizenship.”

His visit to Poland in 1979 is credited with lighting the spark that ignited Solidarity.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deserve credit for backing Solidarity. But it was the young Polish pope that inspired them. John Paul II was canonized on April 27, 2014, and has rightly taken his place among the saints.

(Sources: “This Day In History,” “Catholic Straight Answers” and Wikipedia)

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