Canadian Polish Congress
6th June 2019
Grand Banquet Hall – 35 Brunel Road, Ontario
Thank you for the kind invitation to join your “Polonia Night”; this summer marks the 25th anniversary of my first trip to Poland in 1994, and I will be returning this July to teach in an annual seminar run by George Weigel, the biographer of St. John Paul II. It will be my fifteenth trip to Poland, and it remains always a blessing. Kraków, where the seminar is held, the city of St. Stanisław and St. John Paul, is one of the great European cities.
It is also the city where the twentieth century happened; nearly everything of importance in politics, empires, war, peace, totalitarianism and its defeat, took place in Kraków. The royal and ancient capital of Poland is also the spiritual capital of the twentieth century – it is there that the great battle between good and evil took place, and where in the darkest hours of our time, the light of faith still shone. The light of Christ was not extinguished, even in the horror of the extermination camps built by the Nazis near Kraków.
I consider your invitation a kind recognition of my writing over the years, and I am grateful for that. Many of you follow my column in the National Post; I would encourage you follow a digital magazine I co-founded with my colleagues at Cardus in 2011. It’s called Convivium, and it explores faith in our common life in Canada. It can be found at Convivium.ca and even as we speak tonight, the text my remarks will be posted there.
The second volume of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul is called The End and the Beginning. Taking my lead from that, with a nod to Winston Churchill, the title of my remarks tonight is The Beginning of the End – Lessons on the Fortieth Anniversary of St. John Paul II’s First Visit to Poland.
The end of the end of the Cold War came in 1989, with the peaceful defeat of communist totalitarianism. The dramatic moment occurred on 9th November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The final surrender came a few weeks later, on 1st December 1989. Having been forced to accept the external evil empire of the Soviet Union declare its emancipation from Moscow, the general secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, went to Rome to meet John Paul II. The meeting was polite and diplomatic, but there was no doubt as between Gorbachev and John Paul who had won and who had lost. In two years, the internal evil empire, the Soviet Union itself, would disappear from history.
On Tuesday, I was in Philadelphia for the enthronement of the new Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Borys Gudziak. The patriarch of the Church from Kyiv was present. When Ukraine emerged from the internal evil empire of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the most fierce religious persecutions in history came to an end. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was the largest illegal underground church in the world, having been outlawed by Stalin. That the Ukrainian Catholic Church is now free and regained its proper life, thriving in parts, is a great triumph of the spirit in history.
The historian Timothy Snyder has aptly called the vast territories between Berlin and Moscow “the bloodlands”, where the slaughter was counted not in millions but tens of millions. There was no more lethal place to be in the history of the world than “the bloodlands” of the twentieth century. Yet from there came a great triumph, rooted in a millennium of Christian witness of both Poland and Ukraine. The most powerful proponent of that witness was St. John Paul II.
This week in Canada – as a sign of how poorly we understand the history of our own country and the world – we are having a debate about whether Canada, in regard to her aboriginal peoples, is a genocidal country and has been a criminal enterprise since its founding. Let me simply observe that the word genocide has a particular resonance for those whose roots are in the bloodlands of the twentieth century. Patriotic Polish Canadians, who love Mater Polonia as well as Canada, do not need to be reminded what real genocide is, and it would be salutary for you to remind your fellow Canadians that, fully acknowledging the injustices in the treatment of our aboriginal peoples, genocide is not the proper category. “Polonia Night” is meant to celebrate the contribution of Poles to Canada. Poland has too much history, Canada perhaps too little. Therefore Polish Canadians might help us understand our history better, in the proper context and measured against the proper standard. It is service of immigrants – like me and many of you – to remind Canada of the nearly-unique place she holds in world history.
We are meeting on the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy. Perhaps you have had occasion to read the address of King George VI on D-Day 1944. Let me quote from it now:
“Once again what is demanded from us all is something more than courage and endurance; we need a revival of spirit, a new unconquerable resolve. After nearly five years of toil and suffering, we must renew that crusading impulse on which we entered the war and met its darkest hour. We and our Allies are sure that our fight is against evil and for a world in which goodness and honour may be the foundation of the life of men in every land.
That we may be worthily matched with this new summons of destiny, I desire solemnly to call my people to prayer and dedication. We are not unmindful of our own shortcomings, past and present. We shall ask not that God may do our will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God: and we dare to believe that God has used our Nation and Empire as an instrument for fulfilling his high purpose.”
What His Majesty said then about Britain and her Empire, also included Poland, the first nation to fight bravely and nobly in the Second World War. But I would suggest to you that those words fittingly characterize the witness of Poland through the entire communist period. The end of the end was 1989; the beginning of the end was ten years earlier in 1979.
You might wonder why the anniversaries of D-Day loom so large, even more than V-E Day or other WWII anniversaries. The reason is rhetorical; on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the greatest speeches in a lifetime littered with them. That speech made commemorating D-Day the principal observance of victory in WWII. On that occasion, standing on the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, President Reagan said:
Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.
What began on D-Day ended nearly a year later with victory in Europe. We gather tonight on another 40th anniversary. Forty years ago, at this very time, St. John Paul II was in Poland, his first pilgrimage to his homeland since his election in October 1978. And what he said there was far more important than what the king or president said in relation to D-Day.
St. John Paul II had asked to visit “my beloved Kraków … where every stone and brick is dear to me” for two days in May 1979. He would come for the 700th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław, the 11th-century bishop of Kraków, murdered by King Bolesław the Bold himself during the Holy Mass. The Polish communist party was aghast; the Polish pope returning to commemorate the anniversary of the Polish state killing his predecessor was simply impossible.
So they refused the proposal for two Stanisław-focused days in May, and offered instead nine days in June. John Paul accepted the “compromise” and announced the nine-day pilgrimage for June. The Polish bishops then decided to transfer the celebration of St. Stanisław’s feast to June!
Landing in Warsaw on 2nd June 1979, John Paul made a triumphal entry to the capital city, entering Victory Square, with its tomb of the unknown soldier, for the Mass for the vigil of Pentecost – just as we will be celebrating Pentecost this coming Sunday. With a million people packed into Warsaw’s rebuilt Old City, he preached the most important sermon in the thousand-year history of Poland. He began by pointedly recalling how the communists has refused permission for Pope Paul VI to visit Poland for the millennium of Poland’s baptism in 1966. But now a much more powerful pope was standing in Victory Square. John Paul’s homily was diplomatic and pious, but there was no subtlety in the message: God had won, the Church had won, the Polish people had won.
My pilgrimage to my motherland in the year in which the Church in Poland is celebrating the ninth centenary of the death of Saint Stanisław is surely a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the Church.
The witness of Poland, “from Stanisław to Maximilian Kolbe” could not be understood without reference to Christ and the nation’s Christian faith, John Paul insisted.
There could be no justice in Europe without a free Poland on the map, and there could be not just accounting of Poland’s identity and mission without including its faith in God.
As the homily went on, John Paul was repeatedly interrupted, sometimes for minutes on end, by a rhythmic chant of the vast congregation: “We want God! We want God! We want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books, we want God, we want God!”
By the end of the homily, only hours after his arrival, the historical moment was already clear. The contest was over between a free Catholic Poland and the communist tyranny that had been imposed upon it from Moscow in 1945. It would take another ten years to work out the details – there would be Solidarność, and the assassination attempt on John Paul himself, the declaration of martial law and the Nobel Peace Prize for Lech Wałęsa – but it was not in doubt who would win, and why.
At Normandy in 1984, President Reagan said of those veterans who were gathered to hear him:
These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.
Forty years ago, in Victory Square in Warsaw, an entire generation of heroes was born. We might say of that enormous congregation gathered for Holy Mass on the Vigil of Pentecost:
These are the pilgrims who came to worship Jesus Christ, to venerate His Blessed Mother, to stand in solidary with His Church, and to honour His Vicar on earth.
These are the Catholics who worshipped the Lord, and refused to give to the state that which alone belongs to God.
These are patriots who remained loyal to their motherland, of Poland always faithful, against an foreign occupation, alien to their deepest values and identity.
These are the citizens who restored, without violence, freedom and democracy to the lands saturated with the blood of the innocent.
These are the brave sons and daughters of Poland who strengthened the resolve of all those who love liberty and thirst for justice.
These are the witnesses who offered their testimony that God’s purposes in history can only be thwarted for a time, that His strength is sufficient for us, and that a terrible and awful judgement awaits those who dare to defy the God who will not be mocked.
I am not a son of Poland, but you are, and this is the latest chapter in your millennial history. Be proud of it. Remember it and remind the rest of us of it.
What lessons might be learn from the events of June 1979? I would suggest three:
The first lesson is that religious persecution on a massive scale, coupled with tyrannical denial of basic liberties, has not been banished from our world. The People’s Republic of China today has perhaps more than a million Muslims in consecration camps, seeking to force them to abandon their faith. It is an ambitious imperial power that recognizes no limit on the power of the state. Many responsible voices – in the Canadian government and even in the Church – think that this state of affairs must simply be accepted. China is too powerful to be defied. The lessons of June 1979 teach us otherwise. In Victory Square forty years ago the Polish people won a great triumph, not without difficulties to follow. Thirty years ago last Tuesday, the Chinese people rose up in Tiananmen Square and were crushed under the tanks of the communist regime. Those who think China too powerful to be challenged are forgetting the lessons of 1979 in Poland the 1980s which followed.
The second lesson is that those who think that history is driven only by economics and politics are wrong. They fancy themselves as “realists”, but there is nothing real about ignoring the realm of the spirit. This is a challenge for us too in Canada and other western countries. If liberal democracy is to survive and thrive, it cannot only promise free markets and personal autonomy to no particular end. If we preserve liberty in economics and politics, but have no cultural consensus about the purpose of that liberty, that liberty will erode, and claim the allegiance of fewer of our fellow citizens. It is a difficult balance, one in which Poland today is a test case. Can authentic liberties thrive in a strong cultural of national identity and patriotic pride? Does a strong common culture mean exclusion of those who are “other”? Does a strong national identity require the erosion of liberties for those who dissent? These question are the forefront of political debates in Poland today, and Poland has the opportunity to be a model, again, of a noble freedom lived for something noble.
The third lesson is that religious faith and religious citizens have a valuable contribution to make to the common good. That is the history of Canada, whether it was St. François Laval defending the aboriginal peoples of Quebec in the 17th century, or the prairie preachers of the CCF pioneering Medicare in the twentieth century, or the vast network of churches that has done the heavy lifting on receiving refugees in Canada in our own day. It is certainly the history of Poland.
We need to remember that, especially when our own federal government has forgotten that. We have a government that, in the Canada Summer Jobs Program, insisted that Canadian citizens could not apply for grants to hire summer students unless they pretended to agree with the Liberal Party’s position – not the law of the land, but the Liberal’ Party’s position – on matters of conscience. And when Canadians objected, including a vast alliance of religious groups, the government told those believers that they could just check the box, and take the money.
My own federal MP in Kingston, Mark Gerretsen, took it upon himself to instruct the Catholic Church what belonged to her core mission and what did not. You have similar examples with your own MPs in Mississauga, who put loyalty to the party ahead of fundamental human rights. The lesson from Poland’s experience is that an erosion of rights requires not just orders from the party hierarchy, but the willingness of lower officials to go along with them to protect their position. The number of fearsome tyrants in Poland under communism was far fewer than those who collaborated, who went along with what they knew was wrong. Tyranny cannot grow without that latter group. To be always faithful means to be always vigilant.
Forty years ago in Poland St. John Paul II strengthened the courage of his people. He told them that they no longer had to go along with what the party demanded. They could be free, and did not need the permission of the state to live as a free people. That lesson belongs to the whole world, but in a particular way to the sons and daughters of Polonia Semper Fidelis. I pray you, keep that faith!
God bless you, God bless Poland, God bless Canada!
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