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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Pope's gift to native Poland
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

In the latest of his weekly columns for the BBC News website, John Simpson looks at the late John Paul II's lasting influence on his native Poland.

"I have the feeling," said writer Adam Szostkiewcz in his superb English, nursing his empty coffee cup, "that we will never really get over the death of our Polish Pope."

A child prays in Poland
The Pope has a strong following among the young in Poland
He looked round the magnificent main square in the heart of Krakow, the city in Poland where so many things had happened to him.

It was here that he fell out of love with communism, and became an impassioned spokesman for Solidarity, the free trade union.

It was here too that he came to know Karol Wojtyla and was arrested and imprisoned during the crackdown on Solidarity in 1981.

He dragged out the rest of the 1980s here, banned from serious employment, but later greeted the downfall of Poland's communist rulers.

It was in Krakow that he once again met the Pope who had helped to change everything in his life.

It was here also that he greeted Poland's entry into the European Union.

I can't think what life will be for us now he has gone
Polish woman

And now Poland is on its own again, without the man who has helped to guide it through these extraordinary, totally unexpected reverses of fortune.

"I can't think what life will be for us now he has gone," said a middle-aged woman outside the shrine of Jasna Gora.

For a moment, she looked as desolate as a child separated from its parents in the crowd.

New heart

It is possible to overstate his influence, of course.

Listening to some of the eulogies, you might think he had brought down Marxism-Leninism single-handedly.

The fact is, the Soviet Union was close to breaking point before he was elected Pope, overstretched and deeply inadequate. It was just that no-one realised it.

Karol Wojtyla's election as Pope put new heart into the largest and most important country in Russia's European empire.

It shook the Poles out of the lassitude into which they had sunk ever after the British and Americans handed them over to Stalin at Yalta, and showed them that they still belonged to the wider Europe which was only just starting to emerge.

John Paul II and former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa
John Paul put new heart into the Solidarity movement
And when Solidarity began to threaten the very basis of Soviet control, it was Pope John Paul II who gave its members the assurance that they would not be ignored by the rest of Europe, or by the world in general.

"I'll never forget it," said one-time Solidarity leader Mieczelaw Gil, as he showed us round the vast, grim steelworks at Nova Huta.

The air was filled with little glittering metallic flakes which settled on our clothes and got down our throats.

From somewhere below us came the hot roar of the gigantic smelter.

"He took me by the hand and said: 'Do not be afraid.' He had such an aura about him," said Mr Gil.

It was Pope John Paul who put new heart into Solidarity at the very moment in 1981 when it became clear the communist authorities, prodded hard by Moscow, would try to destroy Poland's demand for greater freedom, rather than accommodate it.

He reminded the Poles that one of the most successful moments in their history was when they joined a political union with Lithuania in the 15th Century
But he was also the one who showed Solidarity's members that this must not be a violent struggle.

The clampdown of 1981 was not, as many people feared, the start of a revolution or a civil war.

When the Berlin Wall came down and one country after another got rid of its old Marxist-Leninist masters, the process was essentially peaceful.

Sadly, this is not a fairy tale: Poland has not been particularly well-governed since the fall of communism.

But despite its 20% unemployment, it is now on the road to long-term prosperity within the European Union.

Influencing opinion

And this was perhaps the last thing Pope John Paul did for his people.

By the middle of 2003 it looked as though Poland might reject EU membership at the forthcoming referendum.

Opinion polls were evenly divided. Many Poles were worried that, having just escaped from one big political grouping, they were about to be swallowed up in another.

At this point, John Paul made perhaps the most carefully considered sermon of his entire pontificate.

It was short, but to the point - and it dealt with events 600 years before.

He reminded the Poles that one of the most successful moments in their history was when they joined a political union with Lithuania in the 15th Century.

There will presumably never be another Polish pope to help when his country needs him
That was all. But it helped to swing public opinion, and by a small but clear majority Poland agreed to take the decisive step of integrating with Europe once again.

When you watch the crowds at Jasna Gora or in the superb churches of Krakow, you are always struck by how young many of the worshippers are.

Young men who in any other European country would be more concerned with football are kneeling in prayer and lighting candles here.

This too is the result of Pope John Paul's influence.

But already, a few days after his death, the process of change is starting.

Catholicism will never be so desperately needed here again, and there will presumably never be another Polish pope to help when his country needs him.

Poland, we can surely say with some certainty, will never have to go through such tribulation again.

It will always need good and sensible government, but it will not need a Pope John Paul II.

And that, too, is part of his gift to his people.

Read John Simpson's previous columns:

You sent your comments:

I saw people who had something that we in the West have to easily forgotten
Dave Llewellyn, Antwerp, Belgium
I spent Easter in Leszno in south west Poland with the family of my fiancée. I watched TV surrounded by reverent people as Pope John Paul II struggled to say a few words. I thought he will not last long. I visited a Catholic Church for he first time in my life and had to queue through two services just to be able to get in. I saw people who had something that we in the West have to easily forgotten. They had faith. In a world where core beliefs are challenged by the worship of the dollar and more recently the euro, these people made me feel envious. They are now to a man, woman, and child in mourning for the dearest member in their family. To have a personal effect on so many people's lives makes me wish I could share in that camaraderie.
Dave Llewellyn, Antwerp, Belgium

My father was Polish and I lived in Krakow for two years, where I experienced first-hand the adoration of the Pope on his pilgrimages to his homeland. I also research the position of women in Polish society. I fundamentally and wholeheartedly disagree with and oppose the Pope's teaching on the role of women, sexuality, prohibiting contraception and abortion etc, policies which have had very real and damaging effect in Poland and elsewhere, particularly on women. What John Simpson's article does not quite capture is the degree of contestation over the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Polish politics and society. There is a significant difference between adoring the Pope as a national hero and icon and following his teaching. At the same time, I don't think the iconic importance of the Pope to Poles can quite be over-stated and I grieve for him, for Poland and for Krakow at this time for having lost a national hero.
Dr Anne-Marie Kramer, West Midlands, UK

He gave the nation a feeling of no longer being alone
Edward Plaziuk, Barton Humber, England
This is an article that needed writing. As a man born in England to Polish parents (who lost their native land as a result of Yalta) and settled in England but brought me up as a Pole, I applaud this article. I have travelled to Poland many times (for the first time in 1966) and our Polish Pope was the catalyst for the 'death'' of communism . He gave the nation a feeling of no longer being alone and the courage to face their oppressors. He will be sadly missed by Poles worldwide.
Edward Plaziuk, Barton Humber, England

I'm the son of a Polish immigrant to Canada. I am not at all a religious man, let alone a subscriber to Catholicism. But the importance of this man to Poles everywhere is immense. It instilled a sense of pride that a countryman of ours could aspire to such an office. He certainly inspired me.
James, Toronto, Canada

I am an English language teacher and have always had a great respect for Mr Simpson's professionalism. I agree totally with his interpretation of the effect of the Pope on Polish society. The fact that this Friday is a day of national mourning is symbolic of the importance that the Pope has given to this country and how much they will miss him. There will be a void not only in the Catholic Church but also in this country which is desperately looking for role models in its fight against political corruption.
Roger Bullock, Gliwice, Poland

He was very strong in a time of change
Josouto Nogueira, Lisbon, Portugal
This Pope was elected to irritate the communists and he did a very good job at that. However, it is too far fetched to say that he contributed (or directed) the downfall of communism. He was very strong in a time of change, and that was good for the Catholic Church, but on the other hand he was very conservative in a lot of issues (birth control, for example) and that alienated many Catholics.
Josouto Nogueira, Lisbon, Portugal

The article by John Simpson on the "Pope's gift to native Poland" is very sensitive. I know Poland to a degree, because my wife is Polish. I would not change anything in the article. Yes, Poland and, in fact, the entire world, will always feel the loss of this great man.
Gorazd Cvetic, Valparaiso, Chile

The results of the Polish EU accession referendum were a whooping 77% for membership with only 22% against. This is hardly a 'narrow' majority, and one constituted by numerous factors, the Pope's ideology of Polish membership 're-evangelising' Europe being a very minor one. What you glaringly fail to address is the Pope's quiet support for the Polish Catholic hierarchy's discrimination of women, homosexuality and religious and ethnic minorities such as the Jews and the Roma. Having experienced the Church's highly aggressive and discriminating stance to women as a Pole myself, I am very disappointed at the shallow and one-sided analysis of your piece.
Anna Pluta, London, UK

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