On June 2, 1979, the Pope arrived in Poland. What followed will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
He knelt and kissed the ground, the dull gray tarmac of the airport outside Warsaw. At the same moment, the silent churches of Poland began to ring their bells. The Pope traveled by motorcade from the airport to the Old City of Warsaw.
The government had feared thousands or even tens of thousands would line the streets.
They were wrong.
By the end of the day, counting the people lining the streets and highways plus those massed outside Warsaw and then inside it—all of them cheering and throwing flowers and applauding and holding signs and singing—more than a million people had come.
In Victory Square in the Old City the Pope said a Mass. Communist officials watched from the windows of nearby hotels. The Pope gave what George Weigel called the greatest sermon of his life.
Why, he asked, had God lifted a Pole to the papacy? Perhaps it was because of how Poland had suffered for centuries, and through the twentieth century it had become “the land of particularly responsible witness” to God. The people of Poland, he suggested, had been chosen for a great role, to humbly but surely understand that they were the repository of a special “witness of His cross and resurrection.” He asked then if the people of Poland accepted the obligations of such a role in history. He asked if they were capable of accepting it.
The crowd responded with thunder.
“We want God!” they chanted. “We want God!”
What a moment in modern history: We want God. From the mouths of modern men and women living in a modern atheist dictatorship.
The Pope was speaking on the Vigil of Pentecost, that moment in the New Testament in which there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s apostles, who had been waiting in fear after his crucifixion. It filled them with joy and courage. John Paul expanded on this. What was the greatest of the works of God? Man. Who redeemed man? Christ. Therefore, he declared, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude…. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man! Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland….” Those who oppose Christ, he said, still inescapably live within the Christian context of history.
Christ, the Pope declared, was not only the past of Poland, he was also “the future….our Polish future.”
The massed crowd thundered its response. “We want God!” it roared.
That is what the Communist apparatchiks watching the Mass from the hotels that rimmed Victory Square heard. Perhaps at this point they understood that they had made a strategic mistake. Perhaps as John Paul spoke they heard the sound careen off the hard buildings that ringed the square; perhaps the echo sounded like a wall falling.
Excerpt from Peggy Noonan’s John Paul The Great, 26-27.