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THE POPE'S UNIQUE POLITICAL IMPACT ON THE WORLD

By Christopher Kerosky

25 years ago, during my first trip to Poland, I witnessed the beginnings of the Solidarity movement taking shape among a reinvigorated Polish population. The new Polish pope had returned triumphantly to his homeland the year before. The passionate response of the Polish people was being translated into political activism against the atheistic Communist government. This revolutionary labor movement was the beginning of the end of the Soviet bloc. Pope John Paul II was already making his impact upon the political world.

Now, a generation later, one can say that the political impact of John Paul II was unprecedented in the history of the Papacy. In fact, few world leaders at any time in history have had a more profound impact upon the world than this humble priest from Krakow.

Apart from being a powerful and charismatic spiritual leader, the Pope was a masterful political actor. Pope John Paul II made a practice of staying very well informed of the political developments in the world. As recounted in his biography of the Pope by Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, John Paul received many personal intelligence updates from the Reagan administration throughout the Solidarity and martial law era in Poland in the early 1980s. Top Reagan officials would make pilgrimages to the Vatican to give information and get advice from the Pope on the evolving situation in Poland. Soviet files now reveal that Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders agonized over the impact of the Pope on the stability of the Eastern Bloc.

In fact, their worst fears were realized. The Pope's role in the steady weakening of the Soviet Bloc, while subtle, is unmistakable. While respecting the reality of Soviet dominance of Poland, John Paul II never accepted it. He worked behind the scenes to inspire Poles and other Eastern Europeans to resist it in non-violence ways. His repeated trips to Eastern Europe helped keep the fires of the underground opposition burning in these Communist countries. John Paul II was a critical player in the downfall of the Soviet Union through his resolute and vocal opposition to Soviet Communism and its domination of other lands.

Even after the Cold War ended, the Pope continued to alter the political landscape of the world. He opposed the Catholic liberation theology popular in Latin America when he became Pope and limited its role there. He chastised the role of priests in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Yet his strident condemnation of authoritarian governments was directed equally at dictators on the right and left. When visiting Latin America, he never hesitated to criticize the military rulers there and decried the gap between rich and poor. Ultimately all of the South American dictatorships fell during his reign as Pope and now, at the time of his death, democracy prevails virtually throughout Latin America.

As the 20th century drew to a close, John Paul II remained the most profound moral leader on the worldwide stage. Five different American Presidents sought out audiences with him and in later years, these became photo opportunities for Presidential candidates. Gorbachev gave way to Yeltsin who gave way to Putin, but Wojtyla remained. Even in death, he made a clear moral and political statement to the world: while disease ravaged his body, his public suffering became a final statement of the Catholic belief that life is sacred and must end only as God wills.

In the end, this man of modest background, from a small but proud nation, who never held pubic office and commanded no armies, has left a political legacy as few political leaders ever have or will.

CHRISTOPHER A. KEROSKY is the Consul for the Republic of Poland in San Francisco (Honorary). He is also a lawyer and former counsel for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C.

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