The John Paul II difference in 1989

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 27, 1989, a joint statement from the communist government of Poland, the Solidarity trade union, and the Catholic Church announced a national “Roundtable” to discuss the country’s future, including major structural issues of political and economic reform. The Roundtable began the following month; basic agreements were reached in April; partially-free elections, swept by Solidarity candidates, were held in June; and in September, a Solidarity leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister since World War II.

Poland was the first of the Warsaw Pact dominos to fall. Its transition accelerated the Revolution of 1989, which was completed in late December 1989 with the swearing-in of Vaclav Havel, a political prisoner earlier in the year, as president of Czechoslovakia.

Over the past quarter-century, various theorists have tried to explain “1989,” typically focusing on the economic incapacities of communist regimes in the post-industrial age, the personality of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, or some combination of these two factors. No doubt the inability of state-centered, command economies to compete in a high-tech world had something to do with “1989”: so did the fact that Gorbachev, who came from a different generation of Soviet leaders, was unwilling to roll the tanks to maintain Stalin’s external empire. But to leave the analysis with economics and Gorbachev seems to ignore the larger historical question: Why did “1989” not involve massive bloodshed and violence, the usual 20th-century methods of effecting vast social change?

Let me suggest, once more, an answer.

Beginning with the 1992 publication of The Final Revolution, I have been arguing that “1989” was, at bottom, a revolution of conscience—a revolution of the human spirit. The essential character of that moral revolution was captured by Polish dissident Adam Michnik in a historical judgment that was also the ethical foundation of a political program: “People who begin by storming Bastilles end up building their own.” The leaders of “1989,” in other words, were determined that “1989” would not be a re-run of 1789. They wanted to build a future of freedom on a nobler foundation than the French revolutionary assertion of radical personal willfulness— which, after the real Bastille had been stormed, quickly turned into radical mob-led bloody-mindedness.

And from whence did that determination-to-be-different come? It came from many sources. It came from years of serious political reflection by dissidents from the working classes and the central European intelligentsia, much of it carried out in prisons and expressed in underground classics like Michnik’s “Letter from the Gdansk Prison, 1985” and Havel’s magnificent essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” It came from the interaction of these dissidents, their organizations, and the various Helsinki Watch Groups that were established in the North Atlantic world to monitor communist regimes’ adherence to the 1976 Helsinki Accords: a cynical act of diplomatic mendacity by which the Soviet Union and its satellites committed themselves to honor basic human rights, and a folly they would come to bitterly regret. It came from an American president, Ronald Reagan, who was prepared to call political and social evil by its right name, whatever the proponents of quiet diplomacy thought.

And it came from Pope John Paul II, who will be canonized precisely three months after the 25th anniversary of the announcement of the Polish Roundtable.

Moral revolution—a revolution of conscience—had been stirring in central and eastern Europe since 1968, when the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks. As archbishop of Cracow, the man who would become John Paul II fostered that revolution by bringing together religious and secular dissidents of moral seriousness. Then, as pope, John Paul focused that intensifying but still latent moral energy, somewhat like a laser, into a sharp, bright beam of conscience during his June 1979 pilgrimage to his native Poland, where he helped people of east central Europe rediscover their dignity.

Communism would have fallen, eventually. That it fell when it did, and how it did, cannot be explained without reference to John Paul II and the revolution of conscience he came to embody.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.