There can be no doubt that Karol Wojtyła was a man spiritually shaped by the messianic tradition of Polish Romanticism. A tradition according to which Polishness by its very nature must be a spiritual power, and in no way can it mean either earthly power or political domination.
In the last words he said while he was in Poland, he referred to a quote from Faustina Kowalska, a mystic whom he himself elevated to the altars of the Catholic Church. It happened on the tarmac of the Cracow airport on 19th August 2002, as he was leaving Poland for the last time, less than three years shy of his death. He said then: “My beloved homeland, Poland, God exalts and distinguishes you, but please know how to be grateful”. Two days earlier, while blessing the Church of Divine Mercy in Cracow, in a barely audible whisper, he recited from memory another radically messianic text from the “Diary” of the same saint, which speaks of a “spark” that would leave Poland to “prepare the world for the Final Coming”.
The substance of Polishness was created by the suffering and martyrdom that our country suffered since the 18th century almost to the modern times. This was what this very Christian “exaltation and distinguishment” was about that he took over from Faustina. Still, in the present, thanks to the miracle of freedom regained in 1989, that sense was to become “gratitude” to Providence expressed in the attitude of ethical maximalism which he constantly demanded from his own nation sovereignly administering over Poland. In simple terms, he formulated this moral priority of rebuilding the country in a famous sermon delivered in 1995 in the small Silesian town of Skoczów. “Our homeland,” he said then, “is facing many difficult social, economic, and political problems today. However, the most basic of problems remains the matter of moral order. This order is the foundation of every society. That is why today Poland is calling for people of conscience!”
The particularly “messianic”, in a specifically Polish – i.e. ethical – understanding of this concept, way Pope Wojtyła treated and experienced his own nationality was of considerable importance.
For in its modern history (that is since national sense of belonging began to shape itself in Europe), the Catholic Church did not have a pope so strongly and at the same time so spectacularly admitting his spiritual formation by means of nationality. Nor did any of the popes affect the national identity and patriotism of their countrymen to such an extent. For obvious reasons, this was not the issue in the case of the Italian popes who, the courageous attempts made by Pius IX notwithstanding, finally engaged in open conflict with the emerging Italian patriotism as understood by Garibaldi. “Italianity” and papacy went their separate ways in the 19th century, yet neither of the last two popes who were not Italian became for their fellow countrymen an icon of “Argentinianity” or “Germanity” (despite the great popularity of Francis in Argentina, which Benedict XVI did not enjoy in Germany). In this sense, the case of John Paul II is unique.
He was the only and most probably the last icon of Polishness in our history, acknowledged by everyone throughout his pontificate. For post-communist President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski, the most important event of his 10-year-long term in office was when he could ride with the Pope in the so-called “Papamobile”, because those few minutes gave him the desired legitimacy to hold the office of the head of state. And the leader of Polish radical feminists Magdalena Środa, when the Pope died in 2005, swore in the name all sainthood that there had been no one more important to her in Polish history than that leader of the Catholic Church.
He was a national authority in the very meaning that Hannah Arendt once gave this concept: he gave advice that could not be ignored in Poland without fear.
His presence in the Roman capital for over a quarter of a century alleviated the characteristic national “Polish complex” diagnosed on the pages the famous eponymous novel by Konwicki, written in the days of decaying communism.
Throughout that “beautiful quarter-century”, we would simply do what we thought was right, with a unique in terms of the Polish psyche sense that (paraphrasing Kundera) “it is here in Poland that life is real” and what we do is shaping not only our own country, but also a new world. It was only from such a collective consciousness, rid of resentment, that “Solidarity” could be born, which in 1980 instilled so much fear in the cabinets of European politicians, as well as an unprecedented reform of our country after 1989, whose scale and pace required unified courage and confidence.
The philosopher Dariusz Karłowicz with a certain emphasis called the national function of John Paul II, that in a way he performed in Poland in those years, the office of “the Great Gardener of Axiological Memory”, comparing it not without reason to that which monarchs traditionally performed. Certainly, historical circumstances were not without significance here. Put together, the beginning and the end of the reign of Pope Wojtyła determine a peculiar and unique “beautiful period” in recent Polish history. It starts with the memorable month of June 1979, which shook the foundations of the communist regime in Poland and after which everything began to look differently than before. It finishes with the Pope’s death in the year 2005, also ending (as it would turn out very soon) the pioneering and idealistic period in Polish politics whose signum temporis consisted in an unusual, in political terms, determination to reform derived from the “Solidarity” movement of young parties. Parties that had not yet mastered the cynical knowledge that politics is about seizing or maintaining power at all costs. An important year that launched the process of remodelling Polish politics shackled by deadly party hostility from that time onwards.
During this “beautiful quarter-century” in recent history of Poland, which almost coincided with the pontificate of John Paul II, Polish politicians in various ways tried to gain his specific imprimatur. This was particularly evident, for instance, in the efforts of the post-communist elite to accept (in spite of anti-clerical activists) a concordat between Poland and the Holy See, or in the efforts to gain the Pope’s support for the controversial decision to join the European Union which was becoming increasingly hostile towards Christianity. This papal imprimatur for the general direction of politics gave it some higher, metapolitical legitimacy, deciding that it was an axiologically correct policy, or in other words – beneficial to the Polish political community. It resounded most powerfully in a speech that the Pope decided to deliver on 11th June 1999 in the Polish Sejm. It was then that he spoke the momentous sentence: “I thank the Lord of History for the current shape of Polish reforms”. In these words, there was commendation for the political idealism of that time and praise for the perseverance of a people capable of sacrifice in the name of the good of the country.
Of course, there is and will never be conclusive proof of the existence of a close causal relationship between the reign of Pope Wojtyła and the Polish “beautiful quarter-century” marked by the eruption of “Solidarity”, regained independence, and the great transformation of the country. They are, however, non-essential unlike the very fact that a Polish messianist was the head of the Catholic Church exactly during this quarter-century in which the friendly wind of history, so rare in our part of Europe, blew over Poland. It had to give birth to national symbolism with a formidable power to influence the collective imagination of Poles. While he was sitting on his Roman throne, though physically distant, he acted like a biblical katechon from the letter of St. Paul, capable of delaying the progress of social anomy in Poland, the destruction of national and family ties, the division of politics along party lines, and ultimately (last, but not least) the secularisation and aggressive anti-religious propaganda.
Since he died, all these processes, hidden somewhere during his pontificate, exploded with great force. Our national “Polish complex” was also revived, dividing today’s Poland into two camps: those who constantly complain (preferably in foreign newspapers) how terribly “ashamed” they are of their “provincial and uncouth” country, and those who can no longer normally do anything for the country without shouting slogans about “getting up off their knees” and with tumultuous jingoist patriotism lined with a sense of inferiority.
On the centenary of his birthday and fifteen years after his death, we already know with complete certainty that by the strength of his presence, Pope Wojtyła merely slowed down the progress of national corruption and temporarily alleviated “the Polish complex”. However, neither the former, nor the latter could he fully stifle during his lifetime. Another matter entirely: could even the greatest genius have the power to impact the reality that would come after his death?