Bishop Wenski – Column
Lech Walesa – April 2006
On April 2nd, I celebrated Mass at St. James’ Cathedral to commemorate the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s entry into Eternal Life. As a Polish American and, of course, as a Catholic, I have always had great love for this son of Poland, the land of my own father’s birth. But, that Sunday evening Mass was even more special because in attendance – and joining the congregation in praying for the canonization of John Paul II – was another son of Poland, who hearing this Pope’s clarion call, “Be not afraid”, set into motion in the early 1980’s a social movement that was to peacefully end communism in Central and Eastern Europe: Lech Walesa.
My first encounter with Lech Walesa was in Poland during the summer of 1987. Gorbachev had just visited Poland – in fact, his visit closed all the airports in the country, delaying my travel plans. He had come to tell the communist authorities there that the Soviet Union was cutting them loose. I met Walesa outside his parish church in Gdansk. At that time, he was still officially a “non-person”, his Solidarity Union having been crushed by government oppression some years earlier. A few weeks later, he was front and center of the negotiations that would lead to a transitional government and then to his eventual election as Poland’s first freely elected President in the post-World War II era. In fact, for Poland and Eastern Europe, World War II only truly ended with his election.
I met him again in 1996 – in Miami. He had just been turned out of office and like former presidents in other countries he was now on a lecture circuit. I attended a speech he gave to Miami Cubans focused on ridding their homeland of communism. His words were wise and to the point. With great bonhomie, he remarked that for democracy to thrive more important than learning how to win elections was learning how to lose them. He also cautioned the Cubans in Miami to apply the “New Testament” to their tactics to uproot oppression in their homeland.
His April 3rd address at UCF stayed pretty much on point: he urged us Americans, as the only remaining military superpower, to also be a power in the renewal of human values. Economic strength and military force are not sufficient in themselves, he said, to build peace in an increasingly globalized world. And he knows of what he speaks. The evil empire of the Soviets did not collapse for economic or military reasons. To be sure, Reagan’s military build-up hastened the Soviet Union’s demise; and, of course, the Soviet economy with its central planning and forced collectivization was a basket case and proved unreformable. But, as John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (#13), the fundamental error of Marxist Communism was anthropological in nature. It violated the truth about the human person and thus was inherently inhuman.
Lech Walesa has earned his place in history. As the charismatic leader of Solidarity, he was a prophet of the human yearning for freedom. He was perhaps much less a charismatic figure as president. Nevertheless, on the lecture circuit, his prophetic charisma is still evident as he insists that peace and justice is only built on the foundations of truth – the truth about man and his human dignity, or what our own founding fathers called “those self-evident truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”. His witness is one of a man who at a crucial time in history successfully walked the narrow path between cowardice which gives in to evil and violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse.
Bishop Thomas Wenski