Memory, identity, and patriotism

George Weigel

The second volume of my biography of St. John Paul II, The End and the Beginning, benefited immensely from the resources of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance [IPN, from its Polish initials], which was established after the Revolution of 1989 to preserve records related to the Polish experience under the Nazis and the communists. Documents obtained from IPN by Polish historians helped me paint a detailed picture of the forty-year war the communists conducted against Karol Wojtyla, from the days when he was a young priest, through his Cracovian episcopate, and on to his first decade as Pope John Paul II.

Thus, as a beneficiary of IPN’s archives, a longtime friend of Poland, and a grateful recipient of that country’s highest award for contributions to Polish culture, I am deeply concerned by the new “IPN Act” signed into law this past February. For the law dictates that IPN – presumably an archive for research – will now become an agency monitoring thought, speech, and writing. According to a law so vaguely drawn as to invite abuse, it seems that IPN is to flag instances of someone speaking publicly or writing about Polish involvement in the Holocaust of European Jewry, speech and writing that has been declared illegal under the IPN Act. The penalty for such transgressions is three years in prison (ironically, the sentence passed by a Viennese court against the odious Holocaust-denier, David Irving).

Sympathetic as I am to some of the current Polish government’s criticisms of the European Union, and much as I welcome its efforts to strengthen family life, I cannot extend my sympathy to this gravely misconceived law: misconceived because it makes IPN into something ominously resembling Orwell’s “Big Brother;” misconceived because it could promote falsifications of history while criminalizing truth-telling; misconceived because it deflects attention from the 6,000 Polish rescuers honored at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem; misconceived because it re-awakens stereotypes many of us have worked for decades to erase; misconceived because it exacerbates tensions in a country where (like America, alas), the survival of the shrillest seems to be the order of the day.

No one should doubt that all Poland suffered terribly during World War II. Twenty percent of the population in 1939 was dead in 1945, including three million Jews. Another 1.2 million people had been “transferred” to Siberia and its gulag camps. The race-mad Nazis seized two hundred thousand Polish children and took them to Germany. At the end of the war, there was not a single structure more than two feet high in Poland’s capital, which Hitler had ordered razed in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Polish heroes of unimpeachable integrity were judicially murdered by the country’s new Stalinist occupiers, because their democratic convictions might pose a threat to consolidating communist rule.

In recent years, real progress has been made in eradicating offensive terms like “Polish Death Camps” from the world’s vocabulary, as Poles, Germans, and others have worked together to make clear that those were Nazi extermination camps. Moreover, Poland’s Jewish heritage is now celebrated: in massive cultural festivals such as the one held in Cracow every summer, and above all in a magnificent new museum of the history of Polish Jewry in Warsaw – one of the finest historical museums in the world. Further, the late Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin, following the example of John Paul II, slowly but carefully created a Jewish-Christian dialogue in Poland, so that memories could be cleansed and purified, and a new relationship between Catholics and Jews forged.

In light of all this, and more, the IPN Act seems a grave mistake. Poland in the 1980s offered the world an inspiring model of morally-driven nonviolent revolution. Since 1989, Poland has been the model for post-communist transitions, politically and economically. Poland and its friends were successfully making the case to the world about the full truth of the unspeakable atrocities that took place there during World War II. Now this.

And in the name of what? National identity is a precious thing, but it can only lead to a true civic patriotism if it deals with history honestly. Russia is a prime example of a country beset by a national story riddled with historical falsehoods. Poles, of all people, should not want to follow that example.

COMING UP: Getting ready for Synod-2018

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The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.