Our Pope: Did We Understand Him?

by John Radzilowski

Polish American Journal, May 2005

Pope John Paul II, who relentlessly promoted the culture of life, now drinks from the fountain of eternal life. For Polish Americans, the election and papacy of John Paul II was probably the single most important event in our history as a community.

He was not merely a Polish pope. There are plenty of very intelligent Poles who know zilch about American Polonia, simply because they have never had the time or the inclination. But John Paul II knew a lot about us. Even before he became pope, he visited our communities, met with our organizations and leaders, listened to our concerns. In almost every papal visit to the United States, he made a point to recognize Polonia. During his visit to Texas he made a special stop at Panna Maria, the birthplace of Polonia. He exhorted Poles and Polish Americans alike to “keep alive this heritage.”

He was our pope. Years before he was the pope of World Youth Day in Denver, the pope who charmed New Yorkers in Battery Park, he was the cardinal who slept overnight at the Orchard Lake Seminary, the one who toured the Polish Museum in Chicago, the one who discussed ideas at the Kosciuszko Foundation.

In the newspapers and on TV we have seen an outpouring of love and appreciation for the Holy Father (even when the media did not necessarily want to do so). Millions of people descended on Rome to attend his funeral and say goodbye. The world and our fellow Americans—at least the more thoughtful among them—are seeing Pope John Paul II with new eyes. They are looking anew at his writing and thought and the phrase “human dignity” is heard again and again. Evangelical Protestants, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims have been overwhelming in their praise of the Holy Father. Even some liberal Catholics have found a few good things to say. The President and First Lady delivered a moving statement and ordered flags across the country lowered to half staff, the first Pole ever accorded that honor.

No doubt every reader of this column can recite the achievements of Pope John Paul II, so there is no need to repeat them. Simply put, he was the greatest pope of modern times, one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, and the greatest Pole who has ever lived. The election of a Polish pope and the Solidarity movement he inspired greatly enhanced the prestige of Poles in America and played a major role in bringing to an end the worst of the “Polish joke” syndrome. Tens of thousands of people who hid their Polish roots came out of the closet and proclaimed their heritage. Without a major increase in immigration and with an aging population, the number of people claiming Polish ancestry recorded by the U.S. Census jumped significantly between 1980 and 1990.

Events like the Holy Father’s passing should cause us to look at ourselves and think hard about big questions. The biggest question of all is whether we as Polish Americans tried to meet Our Pope halfway. Did we understand him? What did we do to help further his work, to make known his hugely important body of philosophical and theological writing?

The answer is probably “not much.” Long years from now, when the significance of Solidarity and the fall of communism have faded, John Paul II will be remembered as one of the greatest and most influential thinkers ever. His work will be studied and debated and it will influence the lives of millions of people who have yet to be born. Many Polish Americans are familiar with Pan Tadeusz or With Fire and Sword. We recognize Chopin as a great composer, Milosz as a great poet. But ask how many have read Evangelium Vitae, Love and Responsibility, or Fides et Ratio and you will get blank looks. All over the United States, there are groups of young people devoted to studying the Holy Father’s book Love and Responsibility and yet this is largely unknown to Polonia (see www.catholicculture.org).

One could recite a whole list of John Paul II’s important—indeed revolutionary—insights into the human condition, but let us look at just one that may have special relevance to Polish Americans. The Holy Father saw culture as the driving force of historical events more than economics, technology or anything else. At the heart of culture was religion. No culture could be authentic without a religious foundation. Great art, literature, architecture, or music could exist only in a milieu that had religion at its core, even when those things were not explicitly religious themselves. When he visited countries around the world, especially those suffering from a lack of freedom, he called on people to restore their authentic history and culture by revitalizing their faith in God. This is precisely what he did in Poland and it was the power of this message that demolished the edifice of lies created by the communists. This is why in 1979 the Poles chanted “We want God! We want God!”

Many of us are concerned about a vibrant Polish American culture that we can pass onto our children. If we want that, then it must be grounded firmly in faith. Of course, not all Polish Americans are believers or Catholics, but that does not matter. What matters is that a religious core must exist for our culture to continue—a culture that is big enough to include atheists, anti-Catholics, or anyone else who cares to join. There are those who truly despise the Catholic core of Polish and Polish American culture who have given themselves over entirely to secularization. There are those who cherry pick their faith as if the Church were a cafeteria.

John Paul II’s witness and his writings call us to the roots of our faith, to submission and obedience to God and, yes, to the teachings of His Church. All of them. For proud people like Polish Americans, words like this stick in our throats. But there is a difference between justified pride in our heritage and pridefulness, between resistance to oppression and injustice and simply being obstinate and willful.

We complain because we feel no one appreciates us, but during his last visit here before he was elected pope, Karol Wojtyla told Polonia (nicely) to stop whining and start taking action to fix its own problems. He called us to greatness. We didn’t listen because we’ve always seen ourselves as innocent victims and thus we have never felt the need to change.

Now, he’s gone to that place “where Death shall have no dominion.” For 26 years we have basked in the age of the greatest Pole in history and what have we done with this gift? Yet, he calls us still to greatness! His writings and example remain here with us.

Will we now understand?

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