Sometime in the mid-90s, high above the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Rome, I had a long and most interesting conversation with a Russian Professor who had taught at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and was at that time a visiting professor at the University of Virginia. I had intended to sleep most of that trip — because I had to defend my dissertation the next day in Rome — until this very interesting Russian diplomatic expert struck up this conversation. He began by asking me why I was travelling to Rome and whether I had some particular business there. I briefly explained the purpose of my trip, and he then seemed to become even more interested in discussing the recent history of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the way I looked at it from a church perspective. His grandparents had been Lithuanian Catholics, but his upbringing and education were completely nonreligious and he was at best an agnostic. But he had a true respect for religion, if for no other reason than his deep love of his grandparents, and he genuinely wanted to see what a Catholic priest thought about this recent history.
At any rate, he seemed to enjoy having this conversation with a Catholic priest who was about his age, and I was not about to miss this opportunity for a genuine opportunity for serious dialogue with an unbeliever. The conversation was wide-ranging, and frankly I can remember very little of it today. But one particularly lengthy part of the discussion resulted from a question he asked me to comment on. He said that many Catholics seem to want to attribute the downfall of the Soviet Union substantially to Pope John Paul II. He asked it what I thought about that proposition. I think my answer caught him by surprise, and it intensified his desire to go into more depth on the question.
I told him that my own personal reading of the situation was that John Paul II played a role in the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, but that his was but one contribution among many causes of the downfall of the Soviet system. It was my conviction then, and today, that while John Paul II certainly had some influence on the political situation in that part of the world, that communism essentially fell of its own weight, and would have collapsed whether John Paul II was elected pope or not. My Russian friend seemed like an honest man intellectually, and so I said that I think that communism was doomed not simply because of its economic failures but because it had denied the place of God in human society and therefore had undercut any real hope for a genuine humanism in the Soviet system. The Communist leaders didn’t and couldn’t kill God, but they certainly sacrificed millions of human beings on the altar of dialectical materialism. The system took away all hope from people, and in the end that was going to be determining factor in its collapse. On this point, I think I was closer to Alexander Solzhenitsyn than many of my Catholic confreres.
He seemed genuinely surprised that I was not touting the role of the man who served as my pope and spiritual leader. He asked me, next, what I thought, then, that the Pope’s primary contribution was to this dramatic bit of history. I told him that I didn’t think it was strictly a political contribution that will be remembered by future generations as the major contribution of this Pope on this level. Rather, I was then, and still am convinced that the greatest contribution to Pope John Paul II, the thing that can be largely attributed to his personal and papal intervention, was the absolutely peaceful way in which this counterrevolution the place. I’m still amazed at that fact, that after 70 years of hellish life under the Soviet Union, that the overthrow of the system throughout Europe and in Russia itself could be accomplished with virtually no bloodshed. Who could have predicted this outcome? I certainly never imagined that it could be accomplished in a peaceful way. How wrong I was, and how amazed I am that one of the greatest tyrannies in human history could have been overthrown in such an incredibly peaceful way. It was the result of the divine mercy that this saintly pope had inculcated in the hearts of his devoted followers in Poland as the key to a revolutionary transition without bloodshed, a peaceful revolution unlike the revolutions of that bloody century and today.
I can’t find any purely human explanation for this accomplishment. For me it is as great a miracle as the curing of the blind or the healing of the crippled. It was something truly supernatural. And certainly it can be largely attributed to the influence that this saintly Pope exercised on the central figures in the cradle of this counterrevolution in Poland. There can be no doubt that while John Paul II was encouraging institutions like Solidarity to push for the freedom of their country, he was at the same time teaching them, and even begging them, to make sure that this was accomplished peacefully, with no retribution, with no bloodshed. And it happened.
On the day of his canonization, more than a decade after that late-night conversation over the Atlantic with this Russian gentleman, these were the thoughts that were going through my mind as others were talking about the miracles that testify to his sanctity. For me, his greatest miracle was the effect that he had on this dramatic event of history, the astoundingly peaceful mode of its accomplishment. Whatever may have been his strictly political influence, and maybe we will learn more about this in the future, his contribution to this peaceful transition seems to me to be the special grace that John Paul II was given to accomplish for the glory of God. This was a true springtime of human freedom, “revolution without bloodshed,” unlike the so-called springtime of democracy movements in today’s world. It will always be for me his greatest contribution in the temporal order. May God forever bless him for this great gift of mercy to his people. By the bye, I somehow managed to get through the defense with little rest. That too might have been divine intervention. But that dialogue was worth it.