When Polish Catholics marked the 25th anniversary of the Pope’s first homecoming last month, it was a moment to pay tribute to his role in the peaceful overthrow of Communist rule. Yet for many, the visit is remembered best for a single statement in the capital, Warsaw, which has come to symbolise the moment when Communism’s fate was sealed.
John Paul II arrived in his homeland on June 2, 1979, seven months after becoming history’s first Polish Pope, and he delivered 32 sermons over the next nine days in eight towns, including his birthplace, Wadowice. It was on the first day, the eve of Pentecost, that he made his famous appeal during an openair Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square, at the end of a homily preached under a 60ft Cross before a congregation of 300,000 people.
He said: “I call out — a son of this Polish land, and at the same time Pope John Paul II; I call out from the very depth of this millennium; I call out on the eve of Pentecost, I call out with you all: Let Your Spirit come down! Let Your Spirit come down! And renew the face of the earth. This earth!” Ayear later, industrial strikes in Poland’s Baltic ports gave birth to the Solidarity union movement, which gained nine million members and transformed the moribund politics of Eastern Europe.
The Pope’s invocation, from Psalm 104, was little commented on at the time. But it has been seen increasingly as an act of divine inspiration which set his countrymen on their path to freedom.
As Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, rector of Krakow’s Papal Theology Academy, has said: “The statement’s poetic accent, its stress on ‘this earth’, directed people’s thoughts to Poland. Although the regime did everything to prevent his words from reaching people, everyone heard them and gained courage and hope from them. He was saying things they’d waited to hear, but which no one had been able to say before.” The pastoral visit had been intended to strengthen Christianity, not to overthrow Communism. But at least one leading Polish dissident had talked of “catastrophic visions”, while Cardinal Franz König of Vienna had predicted a “psycho logical earthquake”. “At this dramatic moment, we sense the Holy Spirit guiding our common fate”, a group of Polish peasants told the Pope in a letter. “We don’t want war, military revolution, a bloody political coup. All of this leads to evil, criminality, destruction and death. We want a revolution in our hearts, minds and characters, out of which will come truth, life and justice”.
Within a year, sure enough, East-West détente had collapsed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while the US Administration had imposed sanctions on Moscow. Within a decade, Poland’s longentrenched Communists would be preparing to relinquish power after losing elections to Solidarity, spurring the domino-like collapse of neighbouring regimes and the break up of the Soviet Union.
As democracy re-emerged in Eastern Europe and oncerepressed Christian communities regained their freedom, Poles looked back to the Pope’s prePentecost appeal to the Holy Spirit and pondered its meaning.
By the late 1990s, the appeal had become the most enduring image of the 1979 visit, immortalised in church paintings and sculptures. Most agreed it had marked the moment when they first glimpsed their future liberation.
In a 2000 survey, 58 per cent of Poles cited the Pope’s October 1978 election as their century’s most important event. Asked whose influence on the world’s fate had been greatest, more than three-quarters cited John Paul II.
In a letter to Poland’s Catholic bishops, the Pope wrote that the visit’s importance “for European and world history” appeared to have grown in the quartercentury since.
“Today, we can say this was indeed a providential event,” the Pontiff explained. “When I prayed, with the bishops, clergy and the faithful for the gift of the Holy Spirit — that it would come down and renew the face of our land — could I have imagined how quickly we would discern the first fruits of this prayer? The powerful action of the Spirit of God opened before our nation a new sphere of freedom.” Some Catholics think the prePentecost promise remains unfulfilled, as Poland grapples with record unemployment, mounting corruption and widespread dissatisfaction, despite joining the European Union.
But for most, John Paul II’s celebrated invocation remains a defining moment in their country’s modern memory — unmistakeable proof, if proof were needed, of the Holy Spirit’s power to shape events.