Thursday, December 29, 2011

Polish freedom and the victory of hope and truth

Brian Burch, of Catholic Vote (USA), gives us the following interesting story, by Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College. The story relates to two champions of life:
It was 30 years ago, December 13, 1981, that martial law was imposed upon Poland by the communist government.  Poles were aghast, horrified, frightened.  And so was the man in Rome, a Polish native named John Paul II, and so was another man thousands of miles away in Washington, DC, President Ronald Reagan.
When word of the communists’ actions reached the White House, President Reagan was furious.  He wanted to help the people of Poland in any way he could.  At that very moment, Reagan committed to save and sustain the Polish Solidarity movement as the wedge that could splinter the entire Soviet bloc, as the first crack in the Iron Curtain.
One of Reagan’s first responses was to call someone he deeply respected: John Paul II.  On December 14, he told the Holy Father: ‘Our country was inspired when you visited Poland, and to see their commitment to religion and belief in God.  It was an inspiration. … All of us were very thrilled.’
At that point, Reagan had not yet met John Paul II in person.  Reagan had been president only for 11 months.  Both he and John Paul II had been shot earlier in the year.  Reagan told the Pope that he looked forward to a time when the two men could meet in person.  […]
Reagan followed up  with two letters to John Paul II […] neither of which was declassified until July 2000.  In the December 17 letter, he asked the Pope to urge Poland’s General Jaruzelski to hold a meeting with Lech Walesa and Poland’s Archbishop Glemp.  In the second letter, Reagan explained the counter-measures his administration was taking against the USSR; he also asked the Pope to use his influence with the Polish Church to lift martial law, to gain the release of detainees, and to resume a dialogue with Solidarity; and he requested that John Paul II press other Western countries to join the United States.  ‘If we are to keep alive the hope for freedom in Poland,’ said Reagan, ‘it lies in this direction.’
Another account given by Professor Kengor tells of a meeting between Ronald Reagan and Romuald Spasowski, the Polish Ambassador, on 23 December 1981.  The ambassador and his wife had just defected to the United States.  
Michael Deaver, a close Reagan aide, witnessed the meeting. Deaver later recorded:
The ambassador and his wife were ushered into the Oval Office, and the two men sat next to one another in plush-leather wingback chairs.  Vice President Bush, and the ambassador’s wife, sat facing them on a couch.
[…] The ambassador […] begged the president never to discontinue Radio Free Europe.  […]  ‘Please, sir, do not ever underestimate how many millions of people still listen to that channel behind the Iron Curtain.’
Then, almost sheepishly, he said, ‘May I ask you a favor, Mr. President?  Would you light a candle and put it in the window tonight for the people of Poland?’
And right then, Ronald Reagan got up and went to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room.

That candle might have brought to mind those lit after Mass by a young Karol Wojtyla.  Then and now, they burned bright for Russia’s conversion.
But Reagan did more than that.  That evening, with Christmas only two days away, the president gave a nationally televised speech watched by tens of millions of Americans.  He connected the spirit of the Christmas season with events in Poland: ‘For a thousand years,’ he told his fellow Americans.  ‘Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people.  They have been betrayed by their own government.’  He made an extraordinary gesture.  The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.   […]
Thirty years ago, December 1981, the communists tried to turn out the lights in Poland.  But like a candle in the White House window, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and the people of Poland kept a flicker of hope alive.
It may seem like a long time ago, distant to the interests of Americans today.  In truth, this was a crucial turning point for the world, for freedom, and for faith.   It is a history lesson worth taking to heart, especially this Christmas.

Indeed, that lesson can equally be taken to heart in Western European countries today.
It brings to mind, too, the Irish custom of leaving a candle lighting in the windows of houses on Christmas Eve night to welcome the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph who were looking for some suitable shelter for the birth of the Saviour of the world.

Christmas 2011