What was Pope John Paul II’s role in the fall of the Soviet Union?

Pope (now St.) John Paul II should definitely be credited with helping bring about the demise of the Soviet Union. Historian Paul Johnson said, “Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II were the trio who destroyed Soviet communism and its evil empire.” Leaving aside the dimension of politics, economics and military power, Pope John Paul II evidenced “the hand of God” at work throughout this scenario. However, he knew and believed he was simply the instrument of the Lord, who preached the truth and bore witness to the power of faith.

On Oct. 12, 1978, Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope.

When Pope John Paul II stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he said, “Be not afraid,” and in closing prayed, “Let the Spirit descend. Let the Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.” While this prayer and exhortation were said to the world, the Polish people, especially, knew he was addressing them. Lech Walesa said that these words energized the Solidarity movement in Poland. At the same time, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, commenced a study of the implications of a Polish pope, concluding that this papacy would destabilize Poland and undermine Soviet authority in the communist block.

The pope’s first encyclical, “Redemptor Hominis” enunciated the basic principles that would be the highlights of his preaching: Each person has dignity, and our nature is not simply material but also spiritual and moral; real freedom is founded upon truth; and God, who is love, has perfectly revealed this truth in our savior, Jesus Christ. Given these principles, the Holy Father taught, “(The) curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but is, above all, an attack on man’s very dignity. … (It is) a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep in man, what is authentically human. … It is therefore difficult … to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life while believers are barely tolerated … or are even entirely deprived of the rights of citizenship.” These words resounded throughout the communist world.

On June 5, 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived in Poland to visit his homeland. As he descended the stairs of the plane in Warsaw, he kissed the ground and incited a spiritual earthquake. During his visit at the Auschwitz concentration camp, the symbol of the evil of totalitarianism, he told the thousands of people gathered from the Eastern European countries to resist the falsehoods they had been told: “You are not who they say you are, so let me remind you who you are.” He preached about the dignity God had given to each of us, especially through our Savior. At Krakow, he again emphasized the need for spiritual and cultural renewal, preserving Poland’s strong faith, and the transforming power of Christ’s love. In response, the people chanted, “We want God, we want God, we want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books.” The visit emboldened the Solidarity movement, and by 1980, the government recognized Solidarity as the first independent trade union in the communist bloc. At the time, President Reagan commented to a friend, “I have had a feeling, particularly in the pope’s visit to Poland, that religion may turn out to be the Soviets’ Achilles’ heel.”

Almost one year after Pope John Paul’s election, the Secretariat of the Communist Party Central Committee met to assess the impact of his pontificate. They issued a directive to the KGB: “Use all possibilities available to the Soviet Union to prevent the new course of policies initiated by the Polish pope; if necessary with additional measures beyond disinformation and discreditation.” In other words, an assassination order was issued.

On May 13, 1981, as the pope was passing through the crowd of St. Peter’s Square, Ali Agca, an assassin hired by the Bulgarian communist secret police at the orders of the KGB, fired two shots at point-blank range which struck the Holy Father. He fell into the arms of his secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz, who asked, “Where?” “In the stomach,” the pope replied. Archbishop Dziwisz asked, “Does it hurt very much?” The pope faintly responded, “Yes. Oh Mary, my mother, my mother,” and fell from consciousness.

The pope was taken to a waiting ambulance. The ambulance’s siren did not work. The medical crew feared the worst. However, a trip that would have taken normally 40 minutes through Rome’s traffic to Gemelli hospital took only eight. One of the chief and best surgeons, Dr. Francesco Crucitti, was off duty, but heard the news on the radio and returned in record time. The pope’s blood pressure was now 70 and falling, and he was given the anointing of the sick. The surgeons were able to stop the bleeding. Miraculously, no vital organ had been disturbed. The bullet had only brushed the organs that, if damaged, would have entailed death; the bullet had passed the main artery by millimeters. Crucitti said that it was as though the bullet had hit a steel wall and had changed directions. Thankfully, the pope survived, and later said, “Someone’s hand had shot me, but another hand directed the bullet. For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.” The doctors agreed a miracle had happened, and the hand of God had directed every action.

On March 25, 1982, the Holy Father consecrated the Soviet Union to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On May 13, 1982, Pope John Paul II visited Fatima and thanked God and the Blessed Mother for having spared his life. He remarked, “In the designs of providence, there are no mere coincidences.” Once he recovered, the Holy Father continued his courageous preaching throughout the world.

At that time, the three great leaders — President Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II — worked together to defeat communism. On Dec. 8, 1991, the day that marks the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Soviet First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union; on Dec. 25 (Christmas), he resigned; on Jan. 1, 1992 (the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God), the evil empire was no more.

Another interesting point: Gorbachev later told Pope John Paul II that, as a child, he had secretly been baptized by his grandmother. In their home, they had an icon of the Blessed Mother hidden behind the mandatory picture of Josef Stalin. Was Gorbachev’s role in this scenario a mere coincidence or grace at work? I think the latter.

As we celebrate the canonization of Pope John Paul II and reflect on this aspect of his pontificate, one must admit that almighty God and our Blessed Mother interceded in this world through him, who so generously gave himself as their instrument. Pope John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity, “I am constantly aware that in everything I say and do in fulfillment of my vocation, my mission, my ministry, what happens is not just my own initiative. I know that it is not I alone who act in what I do as the Successor of Peter” — the words of a humble saint.