Page 1303 - Week 05 - Tuesday, 5 April 2005

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The pope had an extraordinary and canny understanding of the communist system, which equipped him, many would believe—and I certainly do—with the capacity to bring that system down. In 1979 Pope John Paul made his first visit to his homeland since becoming pope. He ended a mass with a prayer for the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth—words that became a rallying cry. Much of the effort, in my view, leading to the collapse of communism can well be said to be his doing. Following the pope’s visit to Poland millions of people began to organise strikes, protests and negotiations to bring down communism.

The pope’s role in the fight against communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall was largely symbolic and moral. Mr Smyth pointed out something taken from another chapter of history when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had spoken disparagingly about an earlier pope. As reported by Prime Minister Churchill, Stalin said, “The pope? How many divisions has he got?” He did not have the soldiers and the tanks, but he certainly had many divisions of spiritual followers and used that to great effect for justice in our world.

His triumphant political activism in Eastern Europe made the pope a hero. As one who has had the privilege of travelling to the Eastern bloc before and quite recently—earlier this year—and having seen that world changed under the impact of what he did, particularly in Berlin, it is quite remarkable to see the newfound freedom that continues to this day in so many of those countries that lived under the tyranny of communism.

An eminent clergyman in the United States, a Reverend Thomas Reece—editor of a magazine called America and an expert on the papacy—has written that, “Historians may one day see him as the most important world leader in the second half of the 20th century because of his role in helping to bring about the fall of communism”.

Not only did the pope’s Solidarity culminate in the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe, but it was also the factor that brought down the Soviet Union in 1990, ending the regime that had controlled Russia since 1917, which had been so heavily involved in dividing Europe and such a key factor in the Cold War, which had dominated European politics since 1945.

Whilst many previous popes were not close to the Jewish people, Pope John Paul proved he was different from previous popes. He was a declared and close friend of Jewish people because he knew and grew up with Jewish people. Whilst it is encouraging that, in more recent times, the work of Pius XII has been reported in far more positive terms than happened previously, it certainly is this pope whom we saw over the past 26 years take many initiatives in helping to improve those relations.

Indeed, he was the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the holocaust, ending the Catholic-Jewish estrangement. Indeed, he coined the term “our elder brothers” in referring to the Jews. He will be forever remembered as the supreme pontiff who brought the relationships of the church with the Jewish people to a whole new level, and who established diplomatic relations and signed treaties with the state of Israel.

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