Polish general and former President Wojciech Jaruzelski, who led efforts to crush Solidarność, the pro-democracy labor movement, was despised by many, but Pope John Paul II believed the communist leader’s Catholic baptism would eventually win out.

And it did.

The former communist leader’s death on May 25 at age 90 offers a chance to take another look at the way St. John Paul II’s gift of discernment transformed history.


Controversial Maneuver

In December 1981, as a result of Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law to repress the fast growth of Solidarność — and avoid an invasion from the Soviet Union, according to the general — approximately 10,000 regime opponents were jailed.

Martial law was harsh: In the process of clamping down on the whole society — air traffic was stopped, phone lines were cut, movement was forbidden and censorship was ordered — about 100 people were killed. 

Eight years later, he negotiated a plan to legalize Solidarność, hold partially free parliamentary elections and create a new presidential office, which Catholic Solidarność leader (and shipyard electrician) Lech Walesa won in December 1990 — all without bloodshed.  

Clearly, in life, Jaruzelski left a mixed legacy.

His death provoked angry debates in Poland over whether he should be buried with military honors in Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery, along the Lane of Honor with military colleagues who defended the country during World War II.

Archbishop Jozef Michalik, president of the Polish bishops’ conference between 2004 and 2014, told KAI, a Polish Catholic news agency, “It’s exceptionally difficult to evaluate this man. When a person crosses the threshold of eternity, we should remember only God knows the true state of his conscience.”

President Bronislaw Komorowski approved the general’s military burial but nixed a national day of mourning as “too divisive.”

As Jaruzelski’s ashes were interred, protesters at the cemetery waved signs reading “Disgrace” and “Traitor,” with images of people who died as a result of communist crackdowns on regime opponents.


Funeral Mass

Yet, at his funeral Mass, held in the Cathedral of the Polish Army, his old nemesis Lech Walesa knelt in the front pew.  And, at the sign of peace, Walesa sought out Jaruzelski’s family to shake their hands.

Walesa, who co-founded Solidarność, was placed under house arrest for 11 months, arrested the very day Jaruzelski declared martial law. The two rivals reconciled in 2011, when Walesa visited him in a Warsaw hospital. 

In a photo of their meeting, posted by Walesa on his website, a small image of Mother Mary can be seen on the wall behind the general, a surprising touch, considering he called himself an atheist in line with the Soviet ideology he enthusiastically implemented.

In fact, Jaruzelski was such an orthodox Communist Party member that, in 1966, he refused to enter the Catholic church where his mother’s funeral Mass was being held, and he hesitated to follow the cross leading a procession to her burial — until his sister made him join the other mourners.     

So the Jaruzelski family’s decision to have a Catholic funeral Mass surprised the Polish public, until word emerged that, 13 days before he died, the general requested Communion, made a confession and was given his last rites.

It was a return Pope John Paul II had long anticipated.


Watchful Polish Pope

Pope John Paul was intensely engaged in his homeland’s 10-year transition to democracy: From 1980, when the fast emergence of independent trade unions in factories, shipyards, mines and workplaces across Poland led to the creation of a national labor federation known as Solidarność, through martial law, through a ban on Solidarność, which was lifted in mid-1983, through the gradual re-emergence of organized anti-communist opposition and the initiation of formal talks between the state and opposition in 1989.

The Catholic Church served as a consistent mediator and interlocutor, with the state and with the opposition, throughout the decade. 

Pope John Paul II visited his homeland nine times, more than any other country. Three of the visits occurred under communism: 1979, 1983 and 1987.

On his first pilgrimage, in 1979, almost 10 million people attended at least one of the Masses offered by the Holy Father. That visit is credited with helping galvanize the Polish people to realize the power they had in numbers and to reaffirm a Christian vision of community.

For communist elites, who had been afraid to deny Pope John Paul II permission to visit, since that would make them look weak, his visit highlighted the ominous threat of popular discontent.

According to Lech Walesa, John Paul delivered two pivotal messages in 1979: “Be not afraid” and an invocation to the Holy Spirit: “Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land,” as the conclusion of a June 2 homily in Warsaw’s Victory Square.

In that prophetic homily, John Paul sketched a vision of Christian Europe without the Cold War divisions established at Yalta in 1945, when the victors of World War II reorganized Europe:

“Thus, my dear fellow countrymen, this pope, blood of your blood, bone of your bone, will sing with you, and with you, he will exclaim, ‘May the glory of the Lord endure forever.’ We shall not return to the past. We shall go forward to the future.”

Just one year later, the Solidarność movement was flourishing, animated by a new sense of national unity and a commitment to non-violence. Astonishingly, about 10 million people, one-fourth of the country’s population, were active.


Soviet Menace

But this florescence occurred against a backdrop of fear that, at any point, the Soviet Union might intervene — even invade Poland — to prevent “counter-revolutionary” reform, as it did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Pope John Paul II was highly aware of this risk, as was Lech Walesa and the Polish communist leadership. The Holy Father did not want to provoke believers into political opposition that would call down the wrath of Moscow, causing death and destruction.

Even during his 1979 pilgrimage, after the first days demonstrated his explosive popularity, he received a confidential, back-channel letter from Polish communist leader Stanislaw Kania (considered sympathetic to the Church) about the risk to national security of his message. And, it seems, he adjusted his language to more religious themes, according to Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi in His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time.

His purpose was not to concede to the enemy, but to help protect the nation from the Soviets — and to preserve state-church dialogue. As Jaruzelski later observed, the Pope was “consolidating hope and courage” for an effort that would go beyond even Poland to dismantle an entire ideology.

Balancing the twin goals of supporting an oppressed Catholic people yearning for freedom, while negotiating for that freedom — with the oppressors — was the delicate task John Paul set for himself.

In October 1981, Moscow forced First Secretary Kania to leave power (after a listening device picked up his criticism of Soviet leadership) in favor of Jaruzelski, a longtime defense minister who was in a post comparable to prime minister.


Baptismal Promise

According to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II had an ongoing relationship with Wojciech Jaruzelski, based on the Holy Father’s confidence that the communist leader was fundamentally a Catholic, whose course of action was forced on him by the Soviet Union, especially Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party from 1964 to 1982.

The legendary journalists explained that, after the imposition of martial law:

“Wojtyla spoke of ‘salvare il salvabile’ — saving what was savable. Patience and caution — and faith — were essential. [Vatican Secretary of State Augostino] Casaroli instructed the papal nuncios in Western Europe to urge their host governments not to cut off economic aid to Poland in protest. Wojtyla’s analysis, supported by American intelligence, held that Jaruzelski would come to resemble the late Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia rather than the typical Moscow puppet, particularly if the Church did not back him into a corner. Wojtyla also believed that Jaruzelski, who as a child had attended a school run by the Marian Fathers, was a secret believer. Over the next few years, this would prove a powerful element in the pope’s calculations” (p. 351).

John O’Sullivan confirms in The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World that, in quiet alliance with the Church, Jaruzelski was able to gradually chart a course away from the Soviets.

In 1982, O’Sullivan wrote, “Moscow believed that Jaruzelski and the Polish Party were insufficiently ruthless with the Church. More than that, Jaruzelski apparently believed that the Church was an indispensible ally in normalizing the country — or at least that Poland could not be normalized against its determined resistance.”


Pope and President

Meanwhile, the Church was also maneuvering to facilitate support for Solidarność, functioning underground. During the martial-law period, aid flowed to Solidarność from the Church and numerous Western governments.

In a private meeting at the Vatican on June 7, 1982, without translators or note takers, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met to discuss the premise they shared: The communist world would collapse, largely as a function of spiritual inevitability.

Assuming Poland had the best chance of leading the way out of communism, the U.S. government shared classified documents on Poland with the pope, and he shared the Church’s intel from inside the country in turn.

In June 1983, John Paul II spent eight days in Poland.

Although this second visit to his homeland was supposed to be restricted to religious themes — and once again, millions attended Mass — one of the biggest headlines was the Holy Father’s meeting with Lech Walesa in a secluded location in the Tatra Mountains on the last day of his visit.

Earlier in the day, Pope John Paul had held a two-hour unscheduled meeting with Gen. Jaruzelski in Krakow’s Wawel Castle. As a result, John Paul was able to tell Walesa that Jaruzelski would lift martial law soon; the way to dialogue and reconciliation was opening.

The general suspended martial law on July 22, 1983, a month after the pope’s visit. Although the regime remained oppressive, Solidarność was able to re-emerge even stronger than before.

That Leonid Brezhnev had a heart attack and died eight months before certainly contributed to Jaruzelski’s increased latitude.

But the Christian view of history does the most to explain these events: God enters human history through his servants. St. John Paul transformed Poland through the events kicked off with his first visit in 1979. He served as an instrument of the Holy Spirit to renew the country, and those who opened their hearts to this project — democrats like Walesa  and communists like Jaruzelski — were renewed, too.


Beyond Poland

Pope John Paul and Jaruzelski’s relationship entered another phase after 1985, when the Polish leader became close to the Soviet Union’s new first secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In January 1987, Jaruzelski met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican to report on Gorbachev’s “new thinking” regarding relations between Warsaw bloc countries.

Later, Jaruzelski reported, as retold in His Holiness: “I told the pope what I knew about Gorbachev and what role Gorbachev was playing, what were his intentions, what difficulties he faced, how important it was to support him, how to understand him, and what a great chance this was for Europe and the world — even if everything was not happening as smoothly as one may desire.”

Mainly, Gorbachev believed each country in the Soviet sphere should chart its own course of reform. 

Gorbachev came to the Vatican in December 1989 to meet Pope John Paul II for the first time. According to His Holiness, the two men had already established shared interests and a willingness to work together through secret correspondence and “through Jaruzelski as interlocutor.”

The fist used by Moscow to hammer the Polish people in 1981 was now, less than 10 years later, an instrument of the saint-pope’s vision of history.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, where he contributes to Foreign Affairs magazine.