The Solidarity difference

Thirty years ago, on Aug. 31, 1980, an electrician named Lech Walesa signed the Gdansk Accords, ending a two-week-old strike at that Hanseatic city’s Lenin Shipyards. Walesa signed with a giant souvenir pen featuring a portrait of Pope John Paul II. The choice of pen was not, as Marxists might have said, an accident. Neither was the distinctive revolution that unfolded in the wake of the Gdansk Accords, which were forged over two weeks of high drama on Poland’s Baltic coast.

The Accords were the pivot between John Paul’s Polish pilgrimage of June 1979 and the rise of the “Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity” in September 1980.  Fourteen months before the strike, John Paul II had ignited a revolution of conscience that had inspired countless numbers of people to “live in the truth,” to live “as if” they were free—as the period’s mottoes had it. “Living in the truth” gave a special texture to the Gdansk Accords, which in turn led to the unique social and political phenomenon that was Solidarity.

There had been labor unrest in Poland in 1953, 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. In each instance, the Polish communist regime pacified the workers (in whose name these Marxists putatively ruled) by a combination of divide-and-conquer tactics, economics bribes (usually involving food prices), and brutality. 1980 was different, and the difference that made 1980 different was the John Paul II difference—a moral difference.

I try to capture that difference in “The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy,” which Doubleday will publish on Sept. 14:

“[This] moral difference showed itself almost immediately as the Gdansk shipyard strike broke out on Aug. 14, 1980.  It was an occupation strike, in which the workers took over the entire shipyard complex, thus creating an oasis of free space in the totalitarian system. Rigorous discipline was maintained, aided by an absolute ban on alcohol in the yards. Religious seriousness was manifest, publicly evident in open-air Masses and confessions. Perhaps most crucially from the point of view of what followed, the workers, having been tutored by John Paul II in the larger meaning of their dignity as men and women, refused to settle for the economic concessions the regime quickly offered.

“Thus on the night of Aug. 16-17, the Inter-Factory Strike Committee [MKS] was established to publish a broader set of demands, including the establishment of independent, self-governing trade unions…The famous ’21 Points’ agreed upon by the MKS presidium…emphasized economic change while including a full menu of basic human rights, specifically mentioning, among others, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and an end to discrimination against religious believers ‘of all faiths’ in terms of access to the media. The goals of dissent had been enlarged and deepened; as one worker-poet would put it a few months later, ‘The times are past/when they closed our mouths/with sausage.’”

Solidarity’s tumultuous path over the next nine years paved the way for the Revolution of 1989, the (largely nonviolent) collapse of European communism, and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. There were endless arguments as Walesa and the Solidarity leadership wrestled with the inevitable turbulence of a new trade union that was also a mass social movement and a de facto political opposition—in a society where the communist party and the state apparatus it controlled tried to occupy every available inch of social space. That the Catholic Church in Poland had tenaciously maintained its independence for 35 years in this suffocating social and political environment helped make Solidarity possible; the Church’s independence also helped provide a protected space in which the movement could continue after Solidarity-the-trade-union was dissolved, under the martial law martial law imposed on Poland on Dec. 13, 1981.

During its epic period, Solidarity was a unique blend of moral and intellectual conviction, economic good sense, political shrewdness, and personal courage, all of which were shaped by the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and the personal witness of John Paul II. Its example should inspire free people, and those who aspire to freedom, everywhere.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash