By the late seventies a coalition of mostly Italian officials in the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church had concluded that communism in Eastern Europe was a fact of life. But in October they chose for the papacy a man who had no notion of accepting things the way they were. Those seeking evidence that a spiritual force guides the deliberations of the College of Cardinals, enabling them to transcend their own time-bound perceptions, point to that conclave.
Karol Wojtyla - Pole, priest and eventually pope under the name of John Paul II - was and is a man of vision. "I state right from the outset: `Be not afraid!'" he wrote in his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. "This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.
Of what should we not be afraid?" he continues. "We should not fear the truth about ourselves." This truth - that people are sinful yet carry divine imprints that give them a right to be treated with dignity - the pope sees as inimical to totalitarian systems. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, in their current best-seller, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Times, report that in personal conversations with President Reagan's CIA director, William Casey, "the pope focused on the absence of truth in Communist society, not just the truth of God, but the truth of human nature,
"The pope's great contribution to the end of Communism in Eastern Europe," says Thomas Melady, U.S. ambassador to Vatican City from 1989 to 1993, "was his confidence that it could be done, and that it could be done without bloodshed."
Wojtyla had grown up under the two leading tyrannies of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism. He successfully led the local church in Krakow through endless run-ins with the petty, time-serving bureaucrats who - with the Soviet armed forces - were the front line of the supposedly invincible Marxist ideology.
"He was confident that Communism could be uprooted," Melady tells Insight. "He told President Reagan this in a meeting in 1982. Reagan asked when it might happen, and the pope said `In our lifetime.' Reagan then said, `Well, we're neither of us getting any younger, so how can I help?' This was the so-called secret agreement, which lasted only as long as Reagan was in office, because it was never a full-fledged treaty ratified by the Senate."
The fact that the growth of the independent union Solidarity coincided with the arrival on the scene of Pope John Paul Il and Reagan never has been seen as a coincidence. Bernstein and Politi's book fleshes out what all observers already knew: John Paul nourished Solidarity, with the help of the United States, often acting as a crucial back channel between the Polish workers and the Soviet regime.
The pope's Polish heritage gave him a symbolic link to events in Poland that no Italian pontiff could have matched. But for all that, John Paul II did not neglect dissident movements in other Iron Curtain countries.
"When I arrived in Rome in Melady says, "I found that the Holy See was involved with events in Czechoslovakia, and I helped transmit some messages to Czechoslovakia. In fact, events in that country raise the question of the credit due to Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union had more military power in Czechoslovakia in 1989 than they did in 1968, when Brezhnev used it to crush the Prague Spring. Gorbachev decided not to use it."
Many observers concur in sharing the credit with Gorbachev and no one more so than Gorbachev himself. In a New York Times op-ed published on March 9, 1992, titled "My Partner, the Pope," Gorbachev wrote:
"Now it can be said that everything that took place in Eastern Europe in recent years would have been impossible without the popes efforts and the enormous role, including the political role, he played in the world arena. I think that the very significant steps we took in our own country played a part in developing relations with the Vatican; in particular, we understood the need for ties between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches. …