As the world was focused on a royal wedding this past weekend, in Vatican City the blessed Pope John Paul II was beatified in front of 1.5 million people from all over the world. The last step before sainthood, beatification is bestowed on the holiest of people and marks the day that he or she has the power to help others who pray for them in heaven. Pope John Paul II was an iconic figure loved not just by Roman Catholics, but by people of all faiths.
In October of 1995, I had the high honor of being at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland where Pope John Paul II held Mass. As a volunteer firefighter for the Mass, I was near the Pope’s route of travel as the Holy Father approached the altar where he gave a very inspirational Homily. In his Homily, the pontiff said,
One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure.’ President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community.
Pope John Paul’s words sixteen years ago struck me then and they still ring true today. The founders of our great nation made sure that God was the anchor for our Republic. They recognized that God gave us certain unalienable rights that can’t be taken away by any government or leader. It was this moral compass that helped defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Most people in my generation remember the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly - it was a seminal moment in history and one I will remember for the rest of my life. Today, twenty-two years after the wall came tumbling down, an entire generation thankfully has no concept of what life was like under the totalitarian regimes that dominated Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
It took extraordinary efforts, by legendary leaders like Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, to finally relegate Soviet Communism to the ash heap of history. Citizens United Productions released a documentary last year entitled Nine Days that Changed the World, hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich, which recounts Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to his native Poland during the dark days of the Cold War. The documentary is about a man who did not derive his power from a stockpile of nuclear arms. Instead, Pope John Paul II used his faith, not as a weapon, but as an inspiration.
Nine Days that Changed the World is the story of how one man’s journey to his homeland in June, 1979, changed the course of history. Millions of Poles – almost one third of the entire nation – turned out to see the Holy Father in person, and the rest of the country followed his pilgrimage on television and radio. While his visit lasted only nine days, the effects would be felt for decades to come. In less than a year and a half after his visit, Solidarity had become the first officially recognized free trade union in the Communist bloc, with over 10 million members. While the Communist government outlawed the group and declared martial law, Pope John Paul’s visit inspired and heartened the movement.
As Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity and later President of Poland, said in Nine Days that Changed the World, “The Holy Father, through his meetings, demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid.” The momentum of this nine day visit would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
During the filming, we traveled to Poland and interviewed leaders of Solidarity, members of the clergy, and childhood friends of the Pope to bring an in-depth picture of, not only what this trip meant to the Polish people, but what John Paul II was like as a man. Having lived through the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, and then by the Soviet Union, the Pope saw firsthand what evil regimes can do to a people.
Pope John Paul II lived a long and influential life that touched millions upon millions of people.
He helped bring down Communism, and end the Soviet advance. The Holy Father also led the Roman Catholic Church through some tough times, but always with a steady hand.
During the Holy Father’s funeral Mass, the enormous crowd chanted “Santo subito!” – “Sainthood now!” The blessed Pope John Paul II is now one step closer to fulfilling the crowd’s wishes.