Workers of Another World United
A Personal Commemoration of Poland’s Solidarity 25 Years Later
The 1981 summer English Seminar in Poznan, Poland, had ended, and the twenty-six British and American instructors and the more than two hundred students had gathered for the farewell party. A young woman from one of my classes told me of John Paul II’s first visit to Poland as pope and the pilgrimage she and her classmates made to Czestochowa to worship with him at the shrine of their homeland’s holiest icon, “the Black Madonna,” at Jasna Gora.
“There we were with the Holy Father,” she said, “thousands of us, praying silently with him, and you could feel the power rising up through the trees.” From the way she said this, I knew that what she said was true, and that what she was describing was the power of the Holy Spirit, which in the summer of 1981 in Poland was as palpably present to me as the country’s tawny wheat fields, turbid rivers, and leafy woodlands.
In class, my students never spoke of religion. But there was something in the manner of a good many of them—a peacefulness of demeanor, a kindly way of addressing each other—that suggested the inner serenity of deeply held Christian beliefs. A couple of the instructors at the seminar called this “the Solidarity spirit.”
They were referring, of course, to the formative Christian spirit of the labor union the Poles called Solidarnos´c´ (“Solidarity” in English) that was also a national freedom movement whose general strike the previous summer (1980) had compelled the communist government of Poland to grant it legal status. Just a few months later, in December 1981, twenty-five years ago this month, the union would be outlawed and many of its leaders imprisoned.
But without the visit of John Paul II to Poland in 1979, there would have been no Solidarity in 1980. And without Solidarity in Poland in 1980, there would have been no disintegration of the Iron Curtain nine years later, no crumbling of the Soviet empire, and no dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
A Sustaining Spirit
Inevitably, in a nation so deeply imbued over the centuries with the teachings of Roman Catholicism, almost all of the workers who joined Solidarity were communicants of that religion. But it was the elevation of John Paul II to the papacy and the powerful sermons he preached during his visit to Poland in 1979, on the Christian concepts of the dignity of human beings as children of God and the dignity of labor, that gave this national labor union its uniquely Christian spirit of solidarity and dedication to the principles of nonviolence and truth-telling. This spirit and these principles proved to be the main sustaining strengths of the union.
My students patiently explained to me the connection between Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland and the founding of Solidarity. After the conclave of his fellow cardinals elected him head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, Karol Wojtyla naturally wanted to visit his beloved native country. And his countrymen wanted him to come. After all, it was no small matter in a country where 97 percent of the people professed Roman Catholicism that a Polish cardinal had become the first non-Italian pope in five hundred years.
The central committee of the Polish Communist party, however, did not share their fellow Poles’ happiness over Wojtyla’s election. Nor did they desire a papal visit. But popular sentiment for a visit was intense and widespread. If the party withheld permission, would that not look like weakness? Would that not seem like fear of one man and what he might do?
So permission was granted, with the proviso that the Catholic Church would have to organize the logistics for his travels in Poland without any help from the government. No state resources would be made available.
John Harmon McElroy is Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona. As a Fulbright Professor of American Studies he taught at universities in Brazil and Spain. He is the author of Divided We Stand: The Rejection of American Culture Since the 1960s (Rowman & Littlefield), published earlier this year. He and his wife have four children and ten grandchildren. Because of his experience in Poland, he says, he has been a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church since 1983.
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