Vatican news today:”Pope Benedict XVI has agreed to speed up the beatification process of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by communist secret services in 1984.”
This cause holds particular interest to me. Father Popieluszko, a close friend of Pope John Paul II from Poland, was murdered while Laurelyn and I were on our honeymoon in Western Europe in the fall of 1984. We followed the grim news in the International Herald Tribune. Weeks later, while in Rome and at the Vatican, we witnessed one of the most extraordinarily powerful scenes of our lives. This scene appears in my book, but I wrote about it first in a column in my newspaper the week JPII died in April 2005. The column follows:
Setting business aside to remember the pope
At some level, the talk of the Triad this week is similar to the talk around the world. The life and legacy of Pope John Paul II was so far-reaching that it had an impact on people everywhere, whether or not they are Catholic.
It’s with that in mind that I momentarily set aside Triad business to share an experience I had during the early part of the pope’s 26-year reign as the church’s 264th pontiff.
It was November 1984, and my wife and I were in Rome on our honeymoon. Bus No. 64 carried us across town, across the Tiber to Vatican City and a Wednesday morning audience with the pope.
We dashed through St. Peter’s Square, through Bernini’s colonnade and into the modern auditorium near the basilica.
After being searched for weapons by Swiss guards — the pope had been shot in the square just three years earlier — we took our seats near the front. Some 8,000 people filled the space. When Pope John Paul II made his entrance, resplendent in his white robes and cape, a kind of electricity swept through the hall.
Like teenagers at a pop concert, the scores of Spanish nuns in front of us went wild. I had never experienced someone able to exude charisma with merely a nod or wave. But you could feel it. And that was just the beginning.
A master communicator, the pope delivered his set address that morning in eight languages. He saved Polish for last. A large group of Poles were seated together several rows behind us, and the pope had spotted them.
His address had been on the sanctity of marriage, and he offered a special blessing for newlyweds like ourselves. But now the pope was departing from his text. He looked directly out at his people, the Poles, as his voice grew more intense, his gestures more animated. We had been following the news; we knew why.
Just a month earlier in Poland, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a parish priest and a dear friend of the pope’s, had been kidnapped and murdered by Polish police and dumped in a river. The priest had been silenced for his support of the outlawed union Solidarity and his opposition to Communist rule.
The pope reflected on that tragedy as he spoke — his low, steady voice charged with emotion. I knew John Paul had suffered as a young man under Nazism; what must he be thinking, I wondered. As a young, naïve American spoiled by our freedoms at home, I knew nothing about actual political oppression.
But now, in the voice and presence of this pope, I could easily imagine its suffocating nature as his uncompromising stand against such inhumanity filled the room.
My wife and I were startled witnesses to this suddenly intense moment, but the Poles in the crowd were grateful recipients. When the pope stopped speaking, dozens of them rose in unison. They unfurled a Solidarity banner, stretched it wide and held it aloft. Others held up crucifixes or simply their hands flashing a V-for-victory sign.
At that time, those simple actions would have landed them in jail, or worse, back home. Now they were defiant, emboldened. All eyes in the auditorium were transfixed on this group as they spontaneously began to sing a gorgeous, hymn-like song in Polish.
Their voices rang out, but not in celebration. Their faces were masks of solemn determination. As they sang, I turned to see John Paul drop his head into his right hand, which was propped up on the arm of his high-backed chair.
With that simple gesture, he was telling them: your pain is my pain, your struggle is my struggle. There was no mistaking that.
I looked at my wife as tears streamed down her face. She was not alone in that regard. We knew we were witnessing something extraordinary, glorious even — the will and spirit of one man giving courage to an entire people. From our place in the auditorium between the pope and the Poles, that power seemed to pass right through us like lightening.
As we were leaving, I met a young Polish man and asked him about the song. He explained that it was the equivalent of “We Shall Overcome,” a plea to God asking him to restore freedom to Poland.
In 1984, years before the end of the Soviet Union or the toppling of the Berlin Wall, such a plea could not be taken for granted. Few people would’ve dared envision Eastern Europe and much of Asia unleashed from the grip of such totalitarianism. Yet one man did.
Since his death on April 2, commentators have emphasized the political role Pope John Paul II played in contributing to the fall of communism. But what we saw that long-ago morning transcended politics and revealed perhaps the pope’s greatest influence.
What we saw was nothing less than John Paul’s spiritual force on those who would actually bring about the collapse.