Extraordinary coincidence, contemporary lesson

George Weigel

Forty years after Pope John Paul II bent the course of the 20th century in a more humane direction during his first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in June 1979, new information continues to emerge about what happened behind the scenes, shedding further light on those epic events. The latest surprise involves a hitherto unremarked (and evidently impromptu) meeting of the Polish episcopate with the Polish pope in the middle of what’s become known as the “Nine Days.” Polish scholars recently discovered and published a transcript of that encounter, and kindly shared a translation with me while I was teaching in Cracow last month.

A bit of background helps set the scene for a powerful reminder that what may seem mere coincidence or randomness can, in fact, be providential — and instructive for the present.

Warsaw, Poland’s political capital from 1596 until the Third Polish Partition in 1795 erased “Poland” from the map of Europe, was absorbed into the Russian Empire after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Russian authorities immediately began an intense and often brutal program of Russification, which included banning the use of the Polish language in public administration and the courts. One physical expression of this determination to eradicate Polishness in Warsaw was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in city center on Saxon Square between 1894 and 1912.

Speaking at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the Russian czar had told Poles to abandon all hope of recovering their independence, and the new Russian Orthodox mega-church — with a bell tower designed to be the highest point in the city — was meant to underscore this brutal diktat. At the cathedral’s dedication in 1912, the local Russian Orthodox archbishop said that “The creators of this cathedral had nothing hostile in their thoughts towards the unorthodoxy that surrounds us: coercion is not in the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Church.” This was, of course, poppycock. The Nevsky Cathedral was nothing but a hostile politico-nationalistic act; the Russian Orthodox Church had long been an instrument of Russian state power; and, as Archbishop Nicholas himself admitted (however clumsily), the cathedral was intended to juxtapose Russian Orthodoxy to the “unorthodoxy” of  recalcitrant Poles who clung to their heretical Catholicism.

In the aftermath of Poland regaining its independence in 1918, the Nevsky Cathedral was demolished, to restore a great public space while removing an affront to Polish sensibilities. After Hitler destroyed Warsaw in 1944, Saxon Square was recreated in the rebuilt capital, although Poland’s communist overseers renamed it “Victory Square.” And it was there, on June 2, 1979, that John Paul II celebrated Mass before hundreds of thousands of Poles and famously called on the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth….of this land.” It was an electric rhetorical moment with consequences as great as Winston Churchill’s 1940 declaration, “…we shall never surrender!” And its providential character was identified in poignant remarks by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the heroic Primate of Poland, when John Paul met with the Polish bishops on June 5, 1979.

“I was raised in Warsaw schools,” the Primate recalled. “I know Warsaw from before World War I….In the exact spot where the Holy Father stood was the apse of a huge czarist church, placed there on orders of the czar, to serve as the ultimate defamation of Poland and the [Catholic] Church… So the Holy Mass [in Victory Square] was a huge experience for me, a huge shock, because I was sitting in the very same spot where once had stood that czarist church and I was looking at the Pope celebrating the Holy Mass where the…main ceremonies of the czarist power were once celebrated; and everything [in my memory] disappeared [because] the Pope was celebrating a Mass in that exact spot…”

Like many others, I’ve been thrilled by that epic moment as captured in films and documentaries, but I had missed the extraordinary, providential coincidence: John Paul’s great Victory Square homily took place precisely where a simulacrum of piety had been built to underscore the religious subjugation of a people and their alleged “unorthodoxy.” God is not without a sense of ironic humor, it seems (although this particular exercise in the divine irony may not be well-appreciated in Vatican circles where the memory of Russian Orthodoxy’s historic aggressiveness toward “unorthodox” Catholicism seems to have been erased).

Catholics may, and indeed must, forgive. But we should also remember. Because forgetfulness can lead to something worse: like a dangerous falsification of reality.

COMING UP: Lessons in virtue from Apollo 11

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Fifty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 11, the world’s latest heroes, were doing decidedly unheroic things: napping, drinking beer, playing cards, reading magazines, and otherwise killing time in the Manned Spacecraft Center’s “Lunar Receiving Facility,” where they were quarantined to ensure that no lethal bugs had been brought back from the Moon’s surface by Neil Armstrong (who saved the mission to taking personal control of Eagle and landing it safely after overflying a vast field of lunar boulders), Buzz Aldrin (who memorably described the moonscape as one of “magnificent desolation”), and Michael Collins (who, orbiting the Moon in Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin were on its  surface, was more alone than any human being since Genesis 2:22). The Lab was perhaps the least glamorous (and, as things turned out, least necessary) of NASA’s Apollonian inventions. For as Charles Fishman vividly illustrates in One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon and Schuster), just about everything involved in effecting that “one small step….[and] one giant leap” had to be imagined, and then fabricated, from scratch.

When President John F. Kennedy verbally committed the country in April 1961 to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the decade was out, no one knew how to do that. No one. NASA chief James Webb, who hadn’t been given advance warning of Kennedy’s pledge, asked his senior staff whether we can “do this.” An uncomfortable silence followed. No one knew for sure.

About what? About everything.

No one knew the appropriate mission architecture: One enormous spacecraft that would go out and back? Or a “stack” of different spacecraft that would do different jobs — en route to the Moon, while there, and on the way home?

No one knew how to maneuver in space: Orbital mechanics weren’t entirely understood and orbital navigation was therefore in its infancy. Nor were there computers capable of making the instant calculations necessary to rendezvous two spacecraft in orbit (around the Earth or the Moon) — which was essential when the “stack” scheme was  adopted as the basic mission architecture, with a command module and a lunar module (itself consisting of two parts) having different functions but requiring assembly by “rendezvous and docking” in Earth orbit, and a later, similar maneuver in lunar orbit.

Was it possible to build and program a computer light enough to install on a spacecraft but powerful enough to do the necessary navigational calculations and guaranteed to get everything right every time (the consequence of slight computer failure often being mission catastrophe)? No one knew, because no one had ever done it before.

Nor did anyone know exactly what the Moon was like: Would a lander sink into the lunar dust? And if not (as soon became fairly clear), how many legs should a lunar lander have: Five for optimal balance? Would four do? (Four would.)

What about the rockets necessary for launch from Earth, for course-adjustment in flight, and from the Moon’s surface? In 1961, American rockets had a disconcerting tendency to blow up on the launch pad or explode shortly after ignition. Could booster rockets and spacecraft engines be built that would work all the time: here, in space, and in the Moon’s environment?

Yet in less than eight years, NASA and its academic and industry associates resolved every one of these questions — and solved some 10,000 more conceptual and technical problems. It was an extraordinary exercise in creativity and cooperation involving some 400,000 people. How did it happen? Answering that question, as Mr. Fishman does with panache, tells us a lot about what genuine national greatness involves: commitment to a grand goal; a willingness to think outside the conventions; the courage to face failure, examine its causes without prejudice, and change what needs changing to get things right; self-sacrifice to the common good; solidarity, expressed as esprit de corps; and no cutting the corners of excellence for the sake of identity politics, political correctness, or partisan advantage.

The tendency to remember Project Apollo as mere technological wizardry, albeit of a very high order, should be resisted. There were great virtues involved in this remarkable adventure, and without those virtues there wouldn’t be six American flags planted on the Moon by a dozen American citizens. Whether those virtues exist in sufficient measure today is an important question to ponder on this golden anniversary.