Praying for those to be elected

There will be much to ponder, once this interminable electoral cycle comes to an end. Why has so much of the campaign seemed like a prolonged episode of “American Idol,” with candidates trying to sell their personal “narratives” rather than their ideas and policies? Why did Pastor Rick Warren, rather than talented, veteran journalists, raise the questions that many Americans would like to explore in considering their new president: questions of the candidates’ character, compassion, intellectual roots, and moral depth? What does the non-stop cable news cycle do to our national ability to pause and think seriously?

Earlier this year, at the height of the primary season, a senior producer in the network news business told me that, while a political junkie, she was appalled by what she had experienced within many campaigns: the carefully crafted, poll- and focus group-driven manipulation of the electorate’s emotions, in what amount to a variant on the sleazier forms of advertising. Isn’t there something more to running for president than appealing to consumer tastes? And then there’s the media’s own fixation with “gotcha,” which further fuels the vacuity of political conversation and debate.

Truth to tell, campaigns are rarely pretty, if you’re interested in ideas rather than spasms of feeling. 1960 is supposed to have been an exception—our age’s answer to Lincoln and Douglas—but few today remember that Kennedy and Nixon spent an inordinate amount of time during their debates arguing about two rocks off the China coast, Quemoy and Matsu. Still, these past two years seem, at the moment, to have been singularly devoid of a serious exchange of ideas, and singularly dominated by sound bites.

So, with the end in sight, let me suggest that it’s time to pray: to pray for the candidates, because whoever is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, is facing a world of trouble; to pray for ourselves, that we refrain from tribal voting and make wise and prudent choices; and to pray for our country, that we grow up a bit more in the years ahead. With thanks to the Diocese of Wilmington, let me commend to everyone the Litany of St. Thomas More, Martyr, and Patron of Statesmen, Politicians, and Lawyers:  

V. Lord, have mercy.

R. Lord, have mercy.

V. Christ, have mercy.

R. Christ, have mercy.

V. Lord, have mercy.

R. Christ, have mercy.

V. Christ, hear us.

R. Christ, graciously hear us.

V. St. Thomas More, saint and martyr, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen, politicians, and lawyers, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, patron of justices, judges, and magistrates, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, model of integrity and virtue in public and private life, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, servant of the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, model of holiness in the sacrament of marriage, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, teacher of your children in the Catholic faith, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, defender of the weak and the poor, R. Pray for us.

V. St. Thomas More, promoter of human life and dignity, R. Pray for us.

V. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,

R. Spare us, O Lord.

V. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,

R. Graciously hear us, O Lord.

V, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,

R. Have mercy on us.

Let us pray: O glorious St. St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen, politicians, judges, and lawyers, your life of prayer and penance and your zeal for justice, integrity, and firm principle in public and family life led you to the path of martyrdom and sainthood. Intercede for our statesmen, politicians, judges, and lawyers, that they may be courageous and effective in their defense and promotion of the sanctity of human life—the foundation of all other human rights. We ask this through Christ, Our Lord.

R. Amen.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”