Christmas 1981 – A Flame for Freedom in Poland

Brian Burch – CatholicVote.org brianburch@catholicvote.org
December 2011 might not be an anniversary on the minds of American Catholics, but it is close and near and dear to the hearts of Polish Catholics. As American Catholics, we ought to pause here, today, to consider why. The reasons are historically and even spiritually inspiring.It was 30 years ago, December 13, 1981, that martial law was imposed upon Poland by the communist government. Poles were aghast, horrified, frightened. And so was the man in Rome, a Polish native named John Paul II, and so was another man thousands of miles away in Washington, DC, President Ronald Reagan.

When word of the communists’ actions reached the White House, President Reagan was furious. He wanted to help the people of Poland in any way he could. At that very moment, Reagan committed to save and sustain the Polish Solidarity movement as the wedge that could splinter the entire Soviet bloc, as the first crack in the Iron Curtain.

One of Reagan’s first responses was to call someone he deeply respected: John Paul II. On December 14, he told the Holy Father: “Our country was inspired when you visited Poland, and to see their commitment to religion and belief in God. It was an inspiration…. All of us were very thrilled.”

At that point, Reagan had not yet met John Paul II in person. Reagan had been president only for 11 months. Both he and John Paul II had been shot earlier in the year. Reagan told the Pope that he looked forward to a time when the two men could meet in person. The imposition of martial law added a special urgency. Reagan wanted to meet with the Pope to plan ways to cooperate.

Reagan followed up with two letters to John Paul II, dated December 17 and 29, 1981, neither of which was declassified until July 2000. In the December 17 letter, he asked the Pope to urge Poland’s General Jaruzelski to hold a meeting with Lech Walesa and the Poland’s Archbishop Glemp. In the second letter, Reagan explained the counter-measures his administration was taking against the USSR; he also asked the Pope to use his influence with the Polish Church to lift martial law, to gain the release of detainees, and to resume a dialogue with Solidarity; and he requested that John Paul II press other Western countries to join the United States. “If we are to keep alive the hope for freedom in Poland,” said Reagan, “it lies in this direction.”

There is much more I could say about all of this, having written books on the subject, but one item that happened precisely 30 years ago, right now, on December 23, 1981, is especially moving and notable:

On that date, Reagan held a private meeting in the White House with the Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, and his wife, both of whom had just defected to the United States. Michael Deaver, a close Reagan aide, witnessed the meeting. Deaver later recorded:

The ambassador and his wife were ushered into the Oval Office, and the two men sat next to one another in plush-leather wingback chairs. Vice President Bush, and the ambassador’s wife, sat facing them on a couch.

The ambassador had in his hand a pocket-sized note pad with wire rings and lined paper, and he was obviously referring to notes he wanted to give to the president of the United States. Meanwhile, his wife, a tiny, delicate-looking woman, kept her head in her hands the entire time, while George Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her.

The ambassador said, “It is unbelievable to me that I am sitting in the office of the president of the United States. I wish it were under better circumstances.”

He begged the president never to discontinue Radio Free Europe. “You have no idea,” he said, “what it meant to us to hear the chimes of Big Ben during World War Two. Please, sir, do not ever underestimate how many millions of people still listen to that channel behind the Iron Curtain.”

Then, almost sheepishly, he said, “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?”

And right then, Ronald Reagan got up and went to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room.

Later, in what I still recall as the most human picture of the Reagan presidency, he escorted his guests through the walkway and out to the circular drive on the South Lawn of the White House. In a persistent rain, he escorted them to their car, past the C-9 Secret Service post, holding an umbrella over the head of the wife of the Polish ambassador, as she wept on his shoulder.
That candle might have brought to mind those lit after Mass by a young Karol Wojtyla. Then and now, they burned bright for Russia’s conversion.

But Reagan did more than that. That evening, with Christmas only two days away, the president gave a nationally televised speech watched by tens of millions of Americans. He connected the spirit of the Christmas season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” He made an extraordinary gesture: The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.

This was a remarkable display, one that placed all Americans on the side of freedom for Poland—and against the communists.

I’m sure it was appreciated, too, by a Polish Catholic named Karol Wojtyla.

Thirty years ago, December 1981, the communists tried to turn out the lights in Poland. But like a candle in the White House window, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and the people of Poland kept a flicker of hope alive.

It may seem like a long time ago, distant to the interests of Americans today. In truth, this was a crucial turning point for the world, for freedom, and for faith. It is a history lesson worth taking to heart, especially this Christmas.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press), God and Ronald Reagan, and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Curt Stoller says:

    One thing I notice in many recent documents from the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is that a certain word which appears again and again in the various documents is a word which very few people use in ordinary speech and which cannot simply be said or written with the expectation that ordinary people will know what it means. And that word is ‘subsidiarity.’ I am not a expert on Roman Catholic Social Teaching but I would challenge anyone reading this to cite any major Catholic Social Teaching which does not use this word or imply it. It is a terribly important word. It means that problems ought to be solved by the smallest, lowest and least centralized competent authority. In Catholic theology it means that political solutions to problems should be taken at the lowest level possible and that central political authority should have a supplemental function, performing ONLY those tasks which cannot be performed by individuals, by families, by friends, by small groups, by local, county or state authorities. The word ‘subsidiarity’ was coined by the Jesuit priest, Father Oswald von Nell Breuning and first used by His Holiness Pope Pius IX in his social Encyclical Quadregesimo Anno [1931]. If I am wrong on the historical facts, I hope another reader will set me straight on that.

    I bring this up because many readers [and I am often guilty of this myself] tend to pass over words that are not understood or assume that those words are understood. You can go to a Catholic book store and pick up little pamphlets that contain papal encyclicals on Catholic Social teaching including the most recent ones by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. But I urge all readers of these documents to take care not to pass over the word “subsidiarity” when it appears in these documents. Because it is a very important word. It has ordinary and profound meanings. When a child tries to touch a hot stove, a parent doesn’t call the President of the United States or the Secretary General of the United Nations to teach the child the danger of that. The parent does it himself, or an older brother or sister, or a relative, or a baby sitter or visiting family friend. If a parent shirks this responsibility, a kindergarten teacher or someone else in the know can call in the police. But the military is not called in nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation nor Interpol. Why? Because the concentration of power is a very dangerous thing and leads to unintended consequences. When a parent does not teach a child that stealing is wrong, the problem is passed up the ladder to the police. Imagine a world where everyone gave up on the idea of self-control and where the police would be expected to take the place of self-control and morality in EVERY single situation. Well that might sound grand except that to make the police so powerful that they could detect all wrong doing and make all wrong doing impossible would be to turn the police into an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-power force. It would be to create an evil much greater than any evil that could be prevented by such a totalitarian force. The total concentration of power in the hands of the few is a not a solution to the problem of evil. It is the greatest evil. This is something that we need to ponder as we willingly give up more and more to the central government in the United States. The limiting of totalitarian power is what is behind the concept of subsidiarity

    One will find the word “subsidiarity” many times in the beautiful Encyclical Letter “Deus Caritas Est” of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. It is a shame that English translations of this document often assume that readers know what that term means because sadly many people do not.

    There is an old saying that people can become what they are trying to fight. Many of our separated brothers and sisters have adopted a form of Christianity which reduces the whole of faith to rational arguments. It is as if they seem to say that everything in Christianity can be rationally demonstrated. Catholics who defend the Catholic faith often find themselves becoming overly rationalistic themselves in the attempt to save the faith from Reformation rationalism. Sometimes I wonder whether those who have fought so long and hard against the Marxist strain in Liberation Theology have unconsciously been stained by the very Marxist socialism they were fighting, like dedicated physicians trying to stamp out inlfuenza often contract the disease themselves. Of course His Holiness is immune to this by the power of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes I wonder whether certain theologians and even certain prelates [and laymen] may have allowed certain false theses of Liberation theology to creep into their public teachings. I pose this as a question and not as an accusation.

    So many Catholics in America stress the idea of solidarity in Catholic Social Teaching. For balance there must be Catholics who stress the idea of subsidiarity. I would like to end this with a quote from the Venerable Pope Pius XII: “We wish to add a few words about public opinion within the pale of the Church [in respect of those matters, of course, which are left to free discussion]. Only those will be surprised at this who do not know the Catholic Church, or at least know her only badly. For, after all, she too is a living body, and there would be something lacking in her life if there were no public opinion in the Church–a lack for which the pastors as well as the faithful would be to blame…” L’Osservatore Romano, February 18, 1950]. If I have said anything that contradicts the defined teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, I ask for correction!

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