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The Canonisation of Pope John XXIII and the Fall of Communism

After a consistory, or meeting with cardinals on September 30th, Pope Francis decided to canonise two of his predecessors, John Paul II (1978-2005) and John XXIII (1958-1963).

October 3, 2013 - Filip Mazurczak - Articles and Commentary



The canonisation of John Paul II is unsurprising as the Vatican had already decided to speed up John Paul’s cause for sainthood under Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Furthermore, John Paul II made Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the future Pope Francis – the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a cardinal, which makes the decision all the more logical. However, the decision to canonise John Paul II together with John XXIII – who died half a century ago and whose cause for sainthood has been much slower – was unexpected. In any case, the Vatican’s imminent bestowing of sainthood on Pope John is an opportune time to re-examine his controversial policy of Ostpolitik, which attempted to improve the status of Catholics living behind the Iron Curtain by engaging in dialogue with East Bloc leaders.

Pacem in Terris

John’s immediate predecessor, Pius XII (1939-1958) was as staunchly anti-Communist as any pope. In fact, he intervened directly in Italy’s post-war parliamentary politics by threatening with excommunication any Italians who affiliated themselves with the Communist Party and by publicly supporting Italy’s Catholic Action during elections to preclude Communist and Socialist victories at the polls. Pius also proved to be very concerned about Catholics behind the Iron Curtain, going so far as to write an encyclical devoted to praising the Hungarian freedom fighters and condemning the Soviet use of force to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Pius trusted and liked his future successor, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, whom he appointed papal nuncio (ambassador) to several countries and later made him the Patriarch of Venice. Yet each pope is a different man, and John XXIII radically broke with Pius’ anti-Communism. This is not to say that John was a pro-Communist sympathiser. Rather, he believed that by engaging in dialogue with Soviet Bloc leaders and by adopting less confrontational rhetoric the situation of Christians living behind the Iron Curtain could be ameliorated.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John tried to negotiate between Khrushchev and Kennedy, whereas Pius almost certainly would have taken the first Catholic American president’s side. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), John distanced himself equally between the two geopolitical blocs. John XXIII is best known for convening the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). While the bishops present at the Council tried to persuade John to sign a document condemning Communism, the pontiff declined to do so. And rather than condemning Communist leaders, he tried to engage in dialogue with them.

The political fruits of John’s Ostpolitik, however, are few. Undoubtedly the most famous success of the new policy was the freeing of Archbishop Josyf Slipyj. Slipyj was the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which resulted from Orthodox bishops’ coming into union with Rome in 1596 under the Union of Brest, a move supported by the most devout of Poland’s Counterreformation kings, Sigismund III Vasa. Ukrainian Greek Catholics are united with Rome and recognise the authority of the pope, yet their liturgy and rules regarding priestly celibacy, for instance, differ from those of Latin Rite Catholics and are the same as those of the Byzantine churches.

The Soviet Union completely drove the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church underground, and Archbishop Slipyj – the Ukrainian Greek Catholic prelate of Lviv – was sent to the Gulag. By entering into a friendly dialogue with Khrushchev, Pope John successfully negotiated the freeing of Slipyj.

A tale of two cardinals

In addition to Slipyj, another churchman behind the Iron Curtain who was directly helped by Pope John was Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the primate of Poland. Wyszyński enjoyed a close friendship with John XXIII, who supported the Polish prelate – who was imprisoned by Poland’s Stalinist government between 1953 and 1956 – in his dealings with the Communists. As Pope John lay in his papal apartment dying of stomach cancer, Wyszyński was one of the few cardinals who met with him.

However, Slipyj – made a cardinal by John’s successor, Paul VI, in 1965 – complained that while he was free, his Church was still greatly persecuted and that the Vatican was largely apathetic to his Church’s pain. Furthermore, Communist leaders across the Eastern Bloc used Pope John’s distancing from the two blocs to support the persecution of Christians. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, the government created a group of collaborationist priests – somewhat similar to the Patriotic Catholic Church that exists today in the People’s Republic of China – named Pacem in Terris, directly referring to John’s encyclical.

Similarly, the Communist government in Poland created an organisation of collaborationist Catholics named Pax, directly referring to the same encyclical (curiously enough, Pax was headed by Bolesław Piasecki, a former far-right nationalist whose political views bordered on fascism). And the Polish Communist government erected a statue to John XXIII in the city of Wrocław with the inscription “Pacem in Terris” in order to encourage Poland’s Catholic priests to be passive. In erecting the monument, Poland’s Communists intended to juxtapose Pope John with Cardinal Wyszyński. Indeed, George Weigel – the biographer of Pope John Paul II – writes that the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain actually increased during Pope John’s papacy.

And if Wyszyński and Slipyj were churchmen supported by Pope John, the Vatican failed to protect another East European cardinal under its policy of Ostpolitik. Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty – who vigorously opposed both Hungary’s fascists from the Arrow Cross and Communists – was sentenced to a life in prison in 1949 for opposing Hungary’s regime. Pius XII excommunicated all involved in Mindszenty’s arrest. In 1956, he was briefly released from prison, yet was imprisoned again for opposing the Communist government. He later sought asylum in the American embassy in Budapest.

However, Washington was more effective in protecting Mindszenty than was Rome. It is no exaggeration to say that John’s successor, Paul VI, betrayed the courageous Hungarian prelate. Taking a cue from John’s emphasis on dialogue rather than confrontation, Paul lifted the excommunication from Mindszenty’s oppressors. He stripped Mindszenty of his church titles. Paul sent Cardinal König – the Archbishop of Vienna who was a close collaborator of Paul VI – to Budapest to ask Mindszenty to cave into his oppressors’ demands. After Mindszenty’s death in 1975, the Vatican replaced Mindszenty and likeminded churchmen with collaborationist bishops. Confessionals were bugged across Hungary. And whereas in Poland even historians who abhor the Catholic Church do not question the Church’s role in the rise of Solidarity, many Hungarian dissidents remained wary of the Church in the 1980s, seeing it as a force of collaboration.

The Austrian cardinal and the first Slavic pope

As has been demonstrated above, Paul VI continued John’s policy of Ostpolitik, and his and Konig’s treatment of Mindszenty was deplorable. However, in the same way that John XXIII supported Slipyj and Wyszyński, two rebels from behind the Iron Curtain, Paul VI supported his successor whose role in the collapse of Communism cannot be questioned by any serious historian. Deeply impressed by the deep erudition, intelligence, and charisma of the young Bishop Karol Wojtyła at the Second Vatican Council (who made a name for himself by his defence of religious freedom at the Council along with the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, much to the irritation of the traditionalist bishops), Paul VI later appointed him the Archbishop of Kraków and made him a cardinal in 1967 at the young age of 47.

Paul VI formed a close friendship with the Polish prelate, and the two met dozens of times during the 1970s. Most importantly, Paul supported Wojtyła’s fight with Poland’s Communists. When the Communist government of Poland refused to build a church in Nowa Huta, the planned socialist workers’ paradise in Kraków, Paul VI supported Wojtyła’s struggle, blessing the foundation stone for the church.

Although cardinals are required to take a vow of secrecy when they enter a conclave (and thus papal conclaves are much more difficult to predict than, say, American presidential elections), thousands of pages of ink have been spilled about the second conclave of 1978, which elected the Pole Karol Wojtyła as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Specifically, its is well-known that the cardinals were unable to elect either of the two Italian main candidates, the traditionalist Giuseppe Siri and the pro-Vatican II reformer Giovanni Benelli. Cardinal König – the same Cardinal König who tried to persuade Cardinal Mindszenty to capitulate to the Communist government’s demands a decade earlier – offered the candidacy of Wojtyła as a compromise.

Like Paul VI, König was a personal friend of Wojtyła (when the latter took the train to Rome to meet the pope, he would travel on Saturday night and make a stop in Vienna to say Mass together with König at St. Stephen’s Cathedral), and was impressed by his learning and culture. He successfully built support for him especially among the German and American cardinals. On October 16th 1978, Cardinal Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II and persons as diverse as Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan have credited his visit to Poland one year later with leading to the rise of Solidarity and, ultimately, the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In conclusion, the now-confirmed canonisation of Pope John XXIII is a great opportunity to assess his opening up to Eastern Bloc countries and the continuation of that policy by his successor, Paul VI. In general, the policy was a failure. It represented a certain naivety on John’s part, and it led to Communist governments’ abuse of his teachings to crush Catholic resistance. That Cardinal Mindszenty was given greater support by a foreign government (that of the United States) than by his own pope and church is a shameful episode in modern Church history. And while Pope John helped Slipyj, even the latter complained that the Bishop of Rome was too soft on Communism.

However, one must not accuse John XXIII and Paul VI of ill will, but rather of an ineffective strategy to help their bishops. And, however they may have failed in Budapest and “Pacem in Terris” became the banner of collaborationist Catholics across the Soviet Bloc, König and Paul VI did enable the rise of Pope John Paul II, who cannot even remotely be accused of being soft on Communism.

Filip Mazurczak studied history and Spanish literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University. He has interned at The United States Congress and The American Enterprise Institute, and his articles have appeared in publications such as First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and Katolicki Miesięcznik “LIST”.

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