US author George Weigel says the late pope faced a full-scale war launched by Communism against the Catholic Church

That Pope John Paul II was a pivotal figure in the fall of European Communism is accepted as a truism, but many details of that drama have remained hidden in archives.

A US biographer of the late pope has now provided particulars of what he describes as the full-scale war by Communism against the Catholic Church, and Pope John Paul’s astute and successful counter-strategy.

The Polish pope displayed political savvy and “a shrewdness that combined steadiness of strategic vision with tactical flexibility”, George Weigel told an audience of seminarians, diplomats and Vatican officials at the Pontifical North American College on Sunday.

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One of Pope John Paul’s moves, Mr Weigel said, was to appoint as his own Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the architect of the Vatican’s “Ostpolitik” efforts to reach workable compromises with communist regimes.

By doing so, he “created tactical advantages for the Church: as the pope preached moral revolution over the heads of Communist regimes, speaking directly to their people, [Cardinal] Casaroli continued his diplomacy, thus denying the Communists the opportunity to charge that the Church had reneged on its commitment to dialogue,” Mr Weigel said.

Mr Weigel said he based his conclusions on previously secret cables and memos that have emerged from behind the former Iron Curtain. He came across the information while researching his latest book on the life of Pope John Paul, The End and the Beginning, which looks at the pope’s final years and evaluates his legacy.

As a point of orientation, he quoted Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul’s longtime secretary, who once remarked about the Church’s battle with Poland’s Communist regime: “You must understand that it was always ‘them’ and ‘us’.” What he meant, Mr Weigel said, was that “the struggle between Communism and Catholicism could not be understood as a matter of episodic confrontations… It was all war, all the time.”

Certainly that was how Communist leaders from Moscow to Budapest saw it, Mr Weigel said. He catalogued efforts by Communist regimes to place spies in local Catholic hierarchies and the Vatican, to exploit the Church’s moves toward openness and dialogue, to create ecumenical confusion and to compromise Church leaders by planting false stories.

In 1983, Mr Weigel recounted, the Polish security police even decided to blackmail Pope John Paul. The instrument chosen was a fake diary said to have been written by a deceased female employee of the Archdiocese of Krakow, in which the diarist reported she had been the future pope’s lover. The plot fell apart when one of the conspirators, after successfully planting the diary in the home of a Krakow priest, got drunk, crashed his car and blabbed to police about what he’d just done.

Although the story has a Keystone Kops flavour, Mr Weigel noted that the same security police operative would surface a year and a half later – as one of the men who beat Solidarity activist Fr Jerzy Popieluszko to death and dumped his body in the Vistula River.

Mr Weigel said Soviet bloc intelligence services tried to manipulate the debates of the Second Vatican Council for political ends, a process that continued as the “Ostpolitik” policy of the Vatican developed and prevailed. He said the Hungarian regime used the Vatican’s diplomatic opening to take control of the Catholic Church in the country; most bishops nominated after 1964 were co-operators with internal security and foreign intelligence services, he said.

At the Pontifical Hungarian Institute in Rome, all the rectors and half the students in the late 1960s were trained agents of Hungarian secret intelligence, he said.

Mr Weigel said Communist moles were placed successfully at Vatican Radio, at the Vatican newspaper and in pontifical universities. When Pope John Paul II was elected, he took some counter-intelligence steps; for one thing, materials dealing with Poland were no longer archived in the Secretariat of State but were kept in the papal apartment “where there was no chance for mischief-makers to prowl around”, Mr Weigel said.

When Pope John Paul met leaders such as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the pope decided not to keep a written record of their conversations, so that the notes would not fall into the wrong hands. Instead, Mr Weigel said, the pope and then-Mgr Dziwisz would discuss the encounters, and the secretary kept notes in diaries that remained under his control.

Mr Weigel said he thinks some lessons can be drawn by the Church’s experience with European Communism, as it looks to present challenges in the world’s remaining Communist states and in Islamic states. For one thing, he said, Vatican efforts to reach beneficial compromises with communist powers “rarely, if ever, paid significant dividends”.

He said a much more valuable witness was provided by church leaders who spoke courageously against the regimes, sometimes paying with their lives.

“Deeply committed and politically shrewd Christian pastors and laity eventually won out over communism. The blood of martyrs, however, was the seed of victory. Their sacrifice, and what we can learn from it about the cardinal virtue of fortitude – courage – must never be forgotten,” he said.

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