John Paul II: the Pope who helped to overthrow communism

Pope John Paul II, photo: CTK

Pope John Paul II was a respected figure worldwide. Even though he was often criticised for his conservative stances in questions like abortion, contraception or gay marriages, he still enjoyed great popularity that can be hardly compared to his predecessors. One factor contributing to his general popularity had been his energetic image as well as the enormous number of trips he made around the globe. John Paul II was also popular in the generally non-religious Czech Republic, even though the reasons for his popularity here may have been slightly different.

Pope John Paul II,  photo: CTK
As Martin Horalek from the Czech Bishops' Conference says, it is associated with the fact that the Pope came from Central Europe and identified with the region:

"This pope has certainly had special importance for Central Europe, for all of Eastern Europe, for the Slavonic countries as well as for the communist and post-communist society in general. It has been one of the greatest merits of John Paul II that the whole Christian Europe started to think much more about the East of Europe."

But John Paul II did not appeal only to Catholics in Eastern Europe. As former Czech dissident Jan Urban says, due to his resistance to communism he was also important for many non-religious people.

"You know, just the symbolism of the first 'Slavic pope' with a very strong anti-communist stance and, what was important at that time in Czechoslovakia, - anti-Soviet standing - this was encouragement for non-Catholics as well."

His election in 1978 not only encouraged the Polish dissident movement but also Czech dissidents who united around the human rights manifesto Charter 77.

"One has to remember that his election came in that very dark time after Charter 77 had come into existence and the regime reacted with vicious attacks. Also, very strong element of Charter 77 dissident movement was Catholic - or Christian Democratic as they called themselves later. So the news about a Polish pope came as a great surprise but also as tremendous encouragement."

Many of the dissidents believed that John Paul II would have the power to influence totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe.

"I recall talking to known Catholic activist Vaclav Benda after his release from prison and he laughed at the darkest of the dark times claiming: 'This is the end!' I thought: You are dreaming, what are you talking about? OK, it's a Polish pope, it' wonderful... We heard from our Polish friends how important it was for them when we met them at the border in the mountains. They all had stickers and literature about him, but it still felt like a dream."

But Martin Horalek says, that the election of John Paul II came as a great surprise even within the Catholic Church itself.

"It was certainly a huge surprise. I think that most of the people in Italy, in Rome - they didn't expect it. He certainly opened the Church to a very live dialogue about contemporary society. He opened the Church to Eastern Europe, he started a dialogue with the Orthodox Church, and what is also very, very important is that John Paul II opened a very positive dialogue with the Jews and Muslims - what was before his papacy something rather suspicious and unusual in the Vatican."

Prior to 1989 the relationship between Czechoslovakia and the Vatican was not good. Not only during communism but even before the war there was a long dispute regarding John Hus. Hus was a medieval religious reformer - a theoretician of the Czech protestant movement - "the Hussites". He was condemned by the Church as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. As Martin Horalek says, it was only after the fall of communism that these disputes were settled, thanks to John Paul II:

"He came directly after the Velvet Revolution in 1990 and he organized this trip as a very extraordinary visit - which was something very special - and he opened the whole issue of John Hus and the big questions regarding this period of Czech history. So he practically started the four-year process during which historians, theologians and a lot of specialists studied the question of John Hus and this period."

But even though John Paul II was very popular among Czech Catholics, and his role in hastening the fall of Communism was widely recognized among former dissidents, not all Czechs looked at all his stances with sympathy.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk
Man: "I don't agree with his opinions regarding abortion, condoms and so on..."

Man: "Well, I have to say I am an atheist, so I am not very qualified in Christianity. But I know that the pope is a certain symbol and he can achieve many things if he wants. I can imagine that this figure has some sense for believers."

Man: "The problem of the Catholic Church - at least for me - is that it is too closed and that it does not reflect the current society. I mean for example the often discussed question of family planning. So in this I see unnecessary conservatism and little respect for the needs of the current society."

At the moment there is much speculation about who will come after John Paul II. Many Czech Catholics would like to see Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk in the post. But even if - as seems highly improbable - the next Pope were to be from Central Europe, it probably would do little to change most Czechs' rather sceptical attitude towards not just the Catholic Church but organised religion in general.