Pope John Paul II and the Fall of Communism in Poland

Reading Time: 15 minutes

By Jenna Drummond

The Cold War is defined as a confrontation between capitalism and communism, which peaked between 1945 and 1989. Its origins go back further in history, and its ramifications are still felt today. The Cold War became a competition for leadership, influence, and power in the world. During the peak years of the Cold War, many countries and people began to stand up to the communist regimes in the world, including that of the USSR. One such leader was Pope John Paul II, the leader of the Catholic Church at the time. Though he was a single man in a decades long conflict, his impact was immeasurable, and his legacy is still drawn upon today. Pope John Paul II, with his leadership of the Church, his unification of nations and religions, as well as his groundbreaking definition of the human person through Theology of the Body, significantly helped to break apart the Soviet Union, which eventually led to the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of communist governments, especially within Poland.

Poland After World War II: The Life of Karol Wojtyla

Poland, for most of its history, has been subject to changing government and political statuses. Invasions, coups, partitions, etc. have eliminated, changed and restored the entire country, but the country’s future always seemed uncertain and dependent on the actions of others. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson promoted the formation of an independent Poland, and even received support from the League of Nations. Though an independent Poland was formed, it did not take long for the country to be under the control of an oppressive regime once again.[1] It was around this time, in 1920, when in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II was born.[2] He was raised in the midst of political turmoil and social chaos, as on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and on September 17, 1939, Soviet Russia fulfilled the pact and invaded Poland from the opposite direction, essentially surrounding the country and forcing it into submission. The Second Republic of Poland had fallen and was now under the control of the Axis powers. On September 28, 1939, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler decided on the final partition of Poland, in which the Soviet Union gained control of over more than half the country, of which Poles made up two-fifths of the population. Karol Wojtyla  had moved to Krakow and was beginning his studies at Jagiellonian University, but when ethnic and cultural cleansings began as the Holocaust reached the borders of Poland, his studies were interrupted and he was forced to do manual labor.[3] Three million Polish Jews were coerced into ghettos, then killed in concentration camps. The Nazis also deported thousands of intellectuals, politicians, and religious, in an attempt to destroy Polish culture. Many Poles were forced into hard labor, if they were not deported.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, breaking their non-aggression pact. As a result of the breaking of this pact, the Soviet Union became an official member of the “Grand Alliance,” or the Allied Powers. The government in-exile was encouraged by Britain to re-establish connections with the Soviets, and they accepted the annulment of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty without the forfeiting of Polish territory by the Soviets. In fact, the Soviets sought approval from the other allied powers in order to keep these territorial gains. As the war came to a close, Stalin began to take measures to ensure Poland would remain in the sphere of influence of the USSR. Though it went against the wishes of both Churchill and Roosevelt, having the Soviet Union as an ally was far too important to argue over a matter such as Poland. As these debates were occurring, the Germans had found evidence of the Katyn Forest Massacre, where the remains of more than 4,000 Police officers and 15,000 missing men were found.[4] As time went on, more and more people went missing from Poland, and the Soviets started targeting the pillars of Polish culture, such as religious. It was at this time Karol Wojtyla entered seminary in secret.[5]

At the end of World War II, Poland was finally free from Nazi control, but replaced one oppressive regime for another as the Soviets took Poland into their sphere of influence. Industrialization and the economy took precedence over any forms of culture, and Poland was soon renamed the People’s Republic of Poland. Intellectuals, the Church, and those who fought for freedom were being silenced daily. While Poland was being repressed, young Karol Wojtyla was raising through the ranks, being appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 after he had taught and received a Doctorate from The Catholic University of Lublin.[6] Wojtyla also began to serve on Church Councils, starting to share his experiences living under repressive regimes and sharing the values that formed henceforth. At the same time Wojtyla began to find his voice in the Church, and eventually the world, other movements began forming and fighting for freedom within Poland. Strikes over price-increases, student rallies for freedoms, and workers’ riots were being violently suppressed and opposed. One of these workers’ riots bore the Solidarity workers’ rights movement, which fought for freedoms within the labor force of Poland. None of these movements ended peacefully or without government intervention.

While the Catholic Church did face opposition and harassment while under the Polish Communists’ regime, it is important to note that the Church and Poland had much better relations than those of many other countries. Poland, though under a communist government, knew the importance of the Church in society and its internal part in the Polish identity. Pre-war, the Church was an integral part of the culture of Poland. The Catholic Church had a privileged position and enjoyed constitutional freedoms. Catholics — clergy, religious, and laity alike — ran charities, schools and owned a sizeable amount of press. Even after the war, Catholics comprised 95 percent of the population of Poland and, as a result, the Polish Communist government could not just ignore the presence of the Church.[7] Unlike other countries, the Polish Catholic Church was able to retain many freedoms, such as the ability to have worship services. Still, the priests and clergy faced harassment and were harassed into becoming loyal members of the regime, being offered better lives if they promoted communist propaganda.[8]

Karol Wojtyla, growing up amidst all this chaos, emerged a great leader, and dedicated most of his life and priesthood to challenging communism. In fact, it was his early memories which shaped him and his life decisions. As he climbed the hierarchy of the Church, Wojtyla drew upon his experiences in Nazi occupied Poland and the Soviet Union of Poland to help him redefine the relationships between humans in Theology of the Body, and stand up for human rights in councils, speeches, and his bishopdom in general. His remarks about communism, and blatant disregard of communist creed marked him out to officials as someone to watch and be weary of. Once elected, the communist regime began to further their plot to dampen his influence.

“Habemus Papam”: The Communist Reaction to Pope John Paul II and How He Broke Papal Precedent

On September 28, 1978, just thirty-three days after he was elected, Pope John Paul I died.  Following protocol, a new pope had to be elected and the Papal Conclave to elect John Paul I’s successor began on October 14, 1978, and after just eight ballots, and two days, the conclave ended, and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, was elected the new pope. To honor his past three predecessors Wojtyla took the name John Paul II. Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, was from the communist occupied Poland, a country whose beliefs were in complete contradiction to those of the Church. Though the government was not a strong proponent to the Catholic Church, the Polish people were still among the most Catholic in the world. Home to the famous “Black Madonna” the people of Poland were adamant about retaining their culture — including their religion — even under repressive regimes.

From his first speech in the papacy, John Paul II spoke honestly to the people, saying, “do not be afraid.” Though this audience was addressed to the entire world, it seemed to speak specifically to those living under regimes where terror tactics were frequently used to scare and keep citizens in line with their oppressive totalitarian regimes. From this moment, the communists knew they were not dealing with another Ostpolitik papacy, but one which could change the course of history.

Popes previous to John Paul II, namely Paul VI and John XXIII, though not conforming to communist guidelines, were also not proactive in protecting the Catholics living under oppressive regimes. The Vatican, during his predecessors, was willing, “to compromise and [had] a seeming desire to accommodate the soviets.”[9] It was obvious that under the new leadership of John Paul II there would be no more circumventing the issues of human rights of those living in the Soviet Bloc. The rights of the people living in the Soviet Bloc would be an important and continual responsibility of his, and he would not give it up for the sake of diplomacy.

            Some of the first policies put into place by John Paul II were to increase the scope and broadcasting abilities of the Vatican. John Paul II fought to increase the predominance of Radio Vatican within the Eastern Bloc by increasing the amount of time spoken in Soviet and Eastern European languages. John Paul also started filling positions left vacant in the Eastern Bloc, showing a true Catholic presence there, rather than an empty showcase. In addition to radios and vocal communication methods, John Paul II also wrote papal encyclicals to voice his concerns to the people.

In his first papal encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, the Holy Father emphasized the dignity of each human person. He wrote how human nature is not only material, but also has a spiritual aspect and moral code. John Paul II wrote about the definition of freedom and the importance of its foundation on truth, or the truth and love that is God, which is perfected in human form through Jesus Christ. By emphasizing these tenets of the Catholic faith, the Pope attacked the Soviet Union and the USSR as their “curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but is, above all, an attack on man’s very dignity. … (It is) a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep in man, what is authentically human. … It is therefore difficult … to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life while believers are barely tolerated … or are even entirely deprived of the rights of citizenship.”[10] These words echoed louder in the USSR more than anywhere else, and the government officials knew the power they were up against was not passive, but would fight for the freedom of his people.

Less than a year after being elected to the papacy, on June 5, 1979, John Paul II arrived for his first papal trip to Poland. This trip did not happen without any resistance from the Soviet government. Originally the pope wanted to be in Poland for the Feast of St. Stanislaus — May 8th — a saint who was martyred by the Polish king, but because of the symbolism behind the Feast Day, the government and trip organizers agreed to compromise. Instead of a two-day, two-city trip in May, the pope would be taking a nine-day, six-city trip in June. Though he would not be around for the Feast of the Polish Martyr, Pentecost, most commonly referred to as the birthday of the Church, would be occurring during this time period. The significance of the anniversary of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to spread the Gospel to “all the ends of the earth” did not go unnoticed by John Paul II and the Polish people.

Another stipulation of the agreement to postpone the pope’s visit to Poland was that the Polish National Government would broadcast portions of his visit on national television. The government agreed to this stipulation so that people would be more discouraged to attend his events as they could just watch from their living rooms, but the plan completely backfired as the plan was ineffective and instead allowed the elderly and homebound to see the pope. An estimated three million Poles formed swarms of crowds and hundreds of thousands people lined the pope’s route from the airport to the inner city, just trying to catch a glimpse of the heroic pope.[11] Allowing the Pope to even visit the country, let alone broadcast it to the entire country, was deliberately done by the government. Although the government knew letting John Paul II visit his homeland was dangerous to the regime and the hold the communists had over the Polish people, they also knew the ramifications of blocking the visit altogether would have even more impact. The Polish Communist government knew if the pope had not been allowed to visit, the backlash from the Polish Catholics would have definitely destroyed the regime.[12] What the regime did not count on, were the messages of hope, freedom, and dignity of every human which John Paul II preached and emphasized on his visit.

The speeches made by Pope John Paul II all emphasized the ideas of freedom found in the Gospel and in Christ, and the need for the Polish peoples to find their own identity. John Paul II made over forty sermons, addresses, lectures and impromptu remarks, most of which could be summed up with his line, “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you are.”[13] The pope preached about the dignity each person, each “child of God” had and emphasized the need for a renewal of both cultural and spiritual values. At one specific event in Krakow the crowd responded to those ideals by chanting, “We want God, we want God, we want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books.” Less than two years later, these were the people who started the nonviolent Solidarity resistance movement. John Paul II brought a confidence and fearlessness to the nation that seemed undeterred by the communist’s reactions and terror tactics. After the pope’s visit to his homeland, President Reagan — a contemporary of John Paul II and fellow advocate of anti-communism — remarked, “I have had a feeling, particularly in the pope’s visit to Poland, that religion may turn out to be the Soviets’ Achilles’ heel.”[14] Stalin himself would think religion, and the new pope, a major threat to the USSR, not simply because of the tenets of the faith, but because of how it unified the people of Poland.[15] As stated by sociologist Richard L. Wood: “Religious culture matters because it is taken seriously by large number of people – and thus orients their lives either toward or away from political engagement and the habits of the heart that can sustain.”[16] The Polish papal visit of 1979 shows how the culture and unity of the Catholic religion politicized Poles to begin fighting for their freedom.

How John Paul II Fed the Flames that was the Solidarity Movement and Unified Poland

The Poles have an extensive and rich history and culture. Most of this history and culture ties back to Catholicism in many ways, such as the rallying behind the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa as a national icon. The sense of unity created by the mutual religion and culture spread far into secular institutions, as sources write: “Given religious traditions have historically shaped the national culture of given societies, but today their impact is transmitted mainly through nationwide institutions, to the population of that society as a whole – even to those who have little or no contact with religious institutions.”[17] Religion was a source of national identity, and John Paul II being not only the leader of the Catholic Church, but also a Polish compatriot, became the face of the national identity. This sense of Catholic nationalism meant when the leader of the Catholic Church spoke, many people listened. As the communications spread the message that John Paul II was so fond of — the same message he started his papacy with on the balcony of St. Peter’s — seemed to spread with it: “Be not afraid… Let the Spirit descend. Let the Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”[18]

This message worried Polish officials, and for good reasons, as it was inspiring movements of Solidarity and resistance amongst the Polish people. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Polish Solidarity movement, which eventually defeated communism in Poland, said these were the words which gave life to the solidarity movement.[19] At the same time the solidarity movement began to form, the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, conducted a study on the effect the Polish pope could have on the masses. The conclusions showed the papacy could have the potential to destabilize Poland and undermine the entire operation and network of the Soviet authorities in the Eastern Bloc.[20] The results were coming true as religious symbols and practices became more prevalent in the social spheres of Poland, especially the workplace. Symbols such as the crucifix, cross, rosary, etc. all gave hope and moral to the workers who were on strike. These symbols began to represent far more than just Catholicism; they represented a moral basing for protests and petitions, and built community and camaraderie amongst those on strike. The symbols also reduced the fears of the reactions of the regime to those participating in the strikes.[21]

When questions of tolerating religion, specifically Catholicism to appease the Pope, came up in debates, Joseph Stalin off-handedly remarked to French politician Pierre Laval, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”[22] Yet, less than a century later, Poland was beginning their revolution and “war” for freedom from the USSR, with Pope John Paul II as the leader. Though the pope did not have divisions of troops as the USSR did, he did have something just as powerful: a message of hope.

Redefining what it Means to be Human

            Besides providing a message of hope and breathing life into the Solidarity movement, Pope John Paul II focused a large portion of his papacy on fighting for human dignity and the family. Every Wednesday, exempting the time he was in recovery after a failed assassination attempt, John Paul II delivered his Wednesday audiences, now known as the addresses that make up Theology of Body, or Theology of the Human Person. While these addresses were mainly focused on human sexuality, the family and marriage, within them John Paul II also argues for the dignity of each human, and the rights that ought to come with the privilege of personhood.

            Drawing upon his past experiences of growing up in Poland during World War II, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation, and eventually the terror associated with the Eastern Bloc, John Paul II developed his Theology of the Body as the remedy to the culture of death around him. By emphasizing the creation story of Genesis, John Paul II also emphasized the humanity and personhood God gave to every single human being, meaning that no life could be worth more than another, and no life was disposable.[23] Though the Catholic Church had always placed emphasis on the personhood and individuality of every human being, John Paul II placed it in a new light.[24] John Paul II reaffirmed that the human body is a gift which must be received and treated as such; it must be respected and revered. Instead of placing the emphasis on love as the Church had, the communist governments had placed the emphasis on the bodies being witnesses of illness and infirmity, and vulnerability. The Pope challenged every human to begin to see the body of the human person as a “witness to Love” and a composite: something that is both body and soul, something that has a divine spirit. John Paul II states, “only the body is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.[25] Theology of the Body defends the position that humans are made in the image and likeness of God and the “theological anthropology” which calls humans to be gifts of love to each other.[26]

            Reflecting on the Gospels and the basis of Catholicism, Jesus and the human person, John Paul II was able to portray communism and the USSR as an evil, of sorts, which was against the true meaning of the human person. The pope fought to defend the rights of humans by defining them as creations of God and worthy of all dignity and respect, not just the totalitarian regimes under which they were living. John Paul II fought to give the people of Poland what the Catholic Church believed was rightfully theirs: freedom.


[2] Roos, Hans, and Piotr S. Wandycz. “Poland.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 30, 2019. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[3]  Important Dates in the Life of Pope John Paul II, accessed April 04, 2019.

[4]  Hans Roos and Piotr S. Wandycz, “Poland,” Encyclopædia Britannica, March 30, 2019, accessed April 04, 2019.

[5]  Important Dates in the Life of Pope John Paul II, accessed April 04, 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valkenier, Elizabeth. “The Catholic Church in Communist Poland, 1945-1955.” The Review of Politics 18, no. 3 (1956): 305-26.

[8]  Yetman, Robert. “Religion in the Cold War”, lecture, April 02, 2019

[9] Alexiev and Alex, “The Kremlin and the Pope,” RAND Corporation, January 01, 1983, accessed April 04, 2019.

[10]Catholic Church, and John Paul. 1979. Encyclical Redemptor Hominis. Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[11] Kraszewski, Gracjan. “Catalyst for Revolution Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Pilgrimage to Poland and Its Effects on Solidarity and the Fall of Communism.” The Polish Review 57, no. 4

[12] Yetman, Robert. “Reagan, Thatcher, Wojtyla: A New Challenge for the Soviet Empire”, lecture. April 11, 2019

[13] “Pope John Paul II and the Dynamics of History.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[14] Richard Reeves, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007).

[15] Yetman, Robert. Religion in the Cold War, lecture, April 02, 2019

[16] Wood R.L., 1999. Religious culture and political action. Sociological Theory. 17(3): 307- 332.

[17] Inglehart R., Baker, W.E. 2000. Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. American Sociological Review. 65(1): 36

[18]Appleby, Scott. “Pope John Paul II.” Foreign Policy, no. 119 (2000): 12-25.

[19] Spinello, Richard A. “John Paul II’s Social and Political Doctrine: Lessons for Contemporary Poland.” The Polish Review 60, no. 4 (2015): 81-98.

[20] Kraszewski, Gracjan. “Catalyst for Revolution Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Pilgrimage to Poland and Its Effects on Solidarity and the Fall of Communism.” The Polish Review 57, no. 4 (2012).

[21] Community of Democracies, The Polish Case, Warsaw 2010, Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.community-democracies.org/app/uploads/2016/09/The_Polish_Case_PDF.df

[22] Stalin, Joseph. May 13, 1935.

[23] William Brennan, John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death. Ave Maria, Fla.: Sapientia Press, 2008.

[24]  Christopher West, “John Paul II’s Antidote to the Culture of Death,” National Catholic Register, accessed April 04, 2019.

[25] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. by M. Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006): 203.

[26] Carl Anderson and Jose Granados, “Called to Love,” Google Books, 2009, accessed April 04, 2019.


Alexiev, and Alex. “The Kremlin and the Pope.” RAND Corporation. January 01, 1983. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P6855.html.

Anderson, Carl, and Jose Granados. “Called to Love.” Google Books. 2009. Accessed April 04, 2019.https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=atrHDMe0O3cC&oi=fnd&pg=PR2&dq=reactions to theology of the body&ots=Kv8Webdr3I&sig=VitrNNvJk3wAj6Chy7G1x0MYxXw#v=onepage&q=reactions to theology of the body&f=false.

Appleby, Scott. “Pope John Paul II.” Foreign Policy, no. 119 (2000): 12-25. doi:10.2307/1149513.

Catholic Church, and John Paul. 1979. Encyclical Redemptor hominis. Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Community of Democracies, The Polish Case, Warsaw 2010, Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.community-democracies.org/app/uploads/2016/09/The_Polish_Case_PDF.pdf

Gallagher, Delia (16 October 2003). “White Smoke Over the Sistine, and Music in St. Peter’s”. Zenit. Retrieved 26 April 2018.

Important Dates in the Life of Pope John Paul II. Accessed April 04, 2019. http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/holy-see/pope-john-paul-ii-timeline.cfm.

 John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. by M. Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006): 203.

J. Brian Bransfield, The Human Person: According to John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2010).

Kraszewski, Gracjan. “Catalyst for Revolution Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Pilgrimage to Poland and Its Effects on Solidarity and the Fall of Communism.” The Polish Review 57, no. 4 (2012): 27-46. doi:10.5406/polishreview.57.4.0027.

“Lessons from Pope John Paul II: Theology of the Body Underpins Health Care.” Lessons from Pope John Paul II: Theology of the Body Underpins Health Care. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.chausa.org/publications/health-progress/article/march-april-2012/lessons-from-pope-john-paul-ii-theology-of-the-body-underpins-health-care.

Poland – World War II. Accessed April 04, 2019. http://countrystudies.us/poland/15.htm

“Pope John Paul II and the Dynamics of History.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.fpri.org/article/2000/05/pope-john-paul-ii-and-the-dynamics-of-history/.

Roos, Hans, and Piotr S. Wandycz. “Poland.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 30, 2019. Accessed April 04, 2019.

Spinello, Richard A. “John Paul II’s Social and Political Doctrine: Lessons for Contemporary Poland.” The Polish Review 60, no. 4 (2015): 81-98. doi:10.5406/polishreview.60.4.0081. https://www.britannica.com/place/Poland/The-Second-Republic#ref28215.

Valkenier, Elizabeth. “The Catholic Church in Communist Poland, 1945-1955.” The Review of Politics 18, no. 3 (1956): 305-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1404679.

West, Christopher. “John Paul II’s Antidote to the Culture of Death.” National Catholic Register. Accessed April 04, 2019. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/john-paul-iis-antidote-to-the-culture-of-death.

William Brennan, John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death. Ave Maria, Fla.: Sapientia Press, 2008.

Yetman, Robert. “Reagan, Thatcher, Wojtyla: A New Challenge for the Soviet Empire”, lecture. April 11, 2019

Yetman, Robert. “Religion in the Cold War”, lecture. April 02, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Us!