Every now and then you feel a sudden stab of sympathy for a group of people for whom, frankly, you never thought you would feel sorry. I was standing in front of a huge black and white photograph. It was taken from the tower of St Mary’s in the Market Square in Krakow; it showed a huge concourse of people in the square, about half a million of them, dressed in white. This was an event of which I had never heard – the “White March” of 17th May 1981. John Paul II had just survived the attempt on his life, and half a million people from his former diocese had walked through the city in solidarity with him, finishing their march in the square, where a mass was celebrated by Cardinal Macharski. (There are some pictures of it here.)
The photograph was pointed out to me by a lady called Annetta, a vivacious redhead; one never likes to ask a lady’s age, but she was old enough to have been there, and I asked her where she had been standing in the picture. Naturally she had been there, standing by the small church if Saint Adalbert, she told me.
People did go to huge Communist rallies in the old days, but they went, one rather suspects, because they felt they had to, rather than because they wanted to. But for John Paul, people turned out with a will. It was all organised by word of mouth, and all organised in defiance of the state. And those were the people I felt sorry for – the members of the Politburo, the high ups in the Polish United Workers’ Party: Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s henchmen. How their hearts must have sunk when they saw half a million people turn out to pray for their Pope. For at that moment they must have seen that it was all quite hopeless, that Communism was doomed, that it never had, and never would, command people’s affections in the way the Church and Karol Wojtyla so effortlessly did.
Annetta came from Nowa Huta, a place that saw one of the earlier struggles between Catholicism and Communism. It was built as a Stalinist exemplar of urban planning. There was no church, except a small wooden one, that pre-existed the steel works and the model housing for workers. But the workers wanted a church and built one for themselves after Stalin’s death, in the teeth of government opposition. Funnily enough, as Annetta told me this, I remembered being told this story as a schoolboy. But Annetta had been there and witnessed it first hand.
Wikipedia says this:
One type of building lacking from the original urban design of Nowa Huta was a Roman Catholic church. The public campaign to construct it lasted several years. As early as 1960, inhabitants of Nowa Huta began applying for permit to build a church. In that year, violent street fights with riot-police erupted over a wooden cross, erected without a permit. The locals were supported by Bishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, and eventually, a church called the Lord’s Arc was built. The complex was consecrated by Wojtyla in 1977. Wojtyla himself, after being elected Pope in 1978, wanted to visit Nowa Huta during his first papal pilgrimage in 1979, but was not permitted to do so.
Ironically, Karol Wojtyla had done what most of the Politburo had perhaps never done – worked in a factory. Annetta often saw him in the Lord’s Ark church when he was auxiliary bishop in Krakow and later Archbishop. He was a frequent visitor. Like many Polish people of her generation, she knew him.
The story of Nowa Huta, the story of the White March, these point me to a great truth about Catholicism. It is a mass movement, but unlike Communism, it is a mass movement of individuals who remain individuals. It doesn’t swallow us up, and it gives each of us a role to play. And it allows us – if we give it a chance – to play our part, a heroic part. Yes, John Paul II got rid of Communism. But so did Annetta, so did countless others like her.