John Paul II was born one hundred years ago, on 18 May 1920. Poland’s ambassador to the United Kingdom welcomes the rediscovery during the coronavirus pandemic of one of his guiding ideas – writes prof. Arkady RZEGOCKI
In the past few weeks, like most of us, I have been closely following the development of the Covid-19 crisis. And in the midst of the anxiety and sadness it came as a pleasant surprise to see the return of an almost forgotten word which has always meant much to us Poles. The word is “solidarity” (solidarność in Polish).
“We are learning the lesson that there is no substitute for solidarity,” an editorial in this paper noted on 11 March, as social distancing measures were being introduced in the UK. The article spoke of the sustained commitment to human dignity and the common good, collectively and individually, that would be necessary to overcome the pandemic. The word was picked up elsewhere in the media in the following weeks, as the lockdown was imposed, in articles which again spoke of solidarity in its social context, about the need to re-evaluate our understanding of human capital and the labour market.
With most of society and the economy in self-isolation, we have grown in our appreciation of key workers, the medical staff and social carers working on the front line of this crisis, but also of the shop assistants, the IT engineers, the waste collectors and bus drivers, and all those who have been keeping essential services going. The call for “solidarity” is a recognition that we need a radical re-evaluation of professions which have long been undervalued or ignored.
For Poles, the word “solidarity” evokes strong and powerful memories. It started with one man’s visit to Poland in June 1979, at one of the darkest moments in its history: the former Archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla’s nine-day pilgrimage, less than a year after his election as Pope, to celebrate the millennium of the baptism of our country. “Do not be afraid” he told the huge crowds in Warsaw, and everything changed. This first visit, as has been said time and again, proved instrumental in the formation of the Solidarity trade union the following year, which, ten years later, led to the fall of the communist regime in Poland. As Timothy Garton Ash has written, “without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989”.
That papal visit of 1979 re-kindled hope in our country, as, for the first time, not only were we able to gather together as a nation to publicly celebrate our Christian heritage, but, more importantly, we began to feel there could be an alternative to the communist regime. It made us realise for the first time since the invasion of Nazi Germany and the rise of communism that we could find strength in each other and together shape our own destiny as a country and be ourselves the agents of social and political change, if only we united together in true solidarity.
My first personal memory of hearing the word “solidarity” from the Pope was in 1987, during another historic papal visit to Poland. In a homily addressed to workers in the shipyard in Gdańsk, the Pope spoke of solidarity as a social bond that united all, rooted in a deep sense of brotherhood which consisted of “each one bearing the burden of the other”. The doctrine of solidarity was further developed in the encyclicals Sollicitudo Dei Socialis, published in December that year, on the twentieth anniversary of Pius VI’s Populorum Progressio, and Centisimus Annus, published in May 1991, on the centenary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the foundation document of Catholic social teaching. The message in both these documents is clear: “Solidarity is a system of interdependence … which entails that we commit ourselves to the common good, because each of us is responsible for everyone.”
This legacy of St John Paul II resonates strongly as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 crisis. These are different times, and the call for solidarity today takes on a different form – whether it is in doing our bit to prevent the spread of the disease through staying at home and social distancing, showing our admiration for those on the front line of this crisis by clapping for our carers, or shielding the most vulnerable in our societies. Yet, it rests on the same principle that there is a deep, common social bond that unites all men and women, irrespective of the differences between them. And as we move slowly towards a post-Covid 19 world, I hope we will continue to draw from John Paul II’s legacy of solidarity, and that it may continue to inspire us to value each other more, and to truly work together as a community united in the pursuit of the common good.
prof. Arkady Rzegocki