Michael Bourdeaux – The Role of Religion in the Fall of Communism – 3

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7. The other Baltic States, Estonia, and Latvia, were less outspoken in their growing demands for freedom, but their inner determination proved just as effective in the end. In both countries the (Protestant) Lutheran Church played a role. Even Ukraine, which had seemed so sovietised in many ways, produced a strong movement for religious liberty – and eventually independence. Here the Soviet authorities in 1945 made a serious mistake in abolishing the Byzantine- or Eastern-rite Catholic Church or forcing the Orthodox Church to take it over (as happened also here in Romania). It maintained itself underground – or rather in the prisons to which its bishops and many of its priests had been condemned. But in the 1980s it came more and more out in the open and appealed to Rome to help its cause. Eventually, after huge public demonstrations on the streets in Lviv and elsewhere Gorbachev recognized that a grave injustice had been done. He visited Pope John Paul II in Rome and announced that the Ukrainian Catholic Church was legal again. It became a major factor in Ukraine’s move for independence from Moscow.

8. Before I move on to Poland, I want to say a word about Mikhail Gorbachev, as I have several times mentioned his name. He never, of course, intended that his policy of liberalization would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. For his first two years (1985-7) he espoused the atheist cause – in word if not in deed – and he never became a believer. However, by 1987 his policies were leading to the release of hundreds of political and religious dissidents from prison. These men and women came home now – as it were – wearing a crown of martyrdom. They had acted with integrity, their words and deeds were recorded in the press, at last freed from censorship. Their impact was tremendous. Mikhail Gorbachev saw what was happening. He estimated that religion still had strength – perhaps believers could assist him in his programme of perestroika. On 28 April 1988 he summoned the metropolitans and Patriarch Pimen to a meeting in the Kremlin and pronounced these words: “We are putting right mistakes made in the way we treated the Church in the 1930s and later… Believers are Soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their convictions with dignity.” Persecution of religion was now a thing of the past. A few weeks later Russia officially celebrated the Millennium – one thousand years since the baptism of the Eastern Slavs in 988. Religious freedom had triumphed – and the Church was set to play a major part in the overthrow of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which was imminent.

9. If the Church in Russia did not play a political role in the collapse of communism, it certainly played an ideological one. But during these later years, from 1978, next door in Poland, there was a political drama being played on a public stage. This was the election of Cardinal Woytila as Pope John Paul II. No one has ever told the full story of the political impact this had in the Kremlin – but the subsequent attempt to assassinate him says it all. Perhaps one day documents from the KGB files will tell the whole story. The political effect of these events have changed the course of European history. Even more than in Lithuania, the Catholic Church in Poland kept the lamp of freedom burning even during the worst years of repression – by the Nazis as well as the Soviets. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who became an archbishop in 1949, lit that light and kept it burning even when he was in prison. Under house arrest shortly after this, he wrote (and these words later circulated secretly, inspiring his people more than he ever imagined might be possible). “After midnight I celebrate the first sung mass… We are making efforts to overcome each other’s sadness – to feel this would be a defeat… God, who has sent us his trial, wants us to help each other… Our last prayer is for our guards and for the soldiers mounting guard outside in the snowy forest. They are the unhappiest among us – we know this full well.” This spirit of hope spread quietly among the oppressed millions. Religious education for children was banned for ten years – so when he was freed Cardinal Wyszynski declared ten years of special prayer for the young to compensate. The Poles had a very special treasure, the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. The plan was to spend ten years parading it into every church, into every village, in Poland, but the communist authorities confiscated it. Instead the church leaders took an empty frame around the country – the effect was far more powerful than the Black Madonna herself would have been! Pope John Paul II was extremely clever. He never called for an uprising as such against communism. Under his influence Solidarnost (Solidarity), a Christian workers movement came into being and influenced millions. When the Pope paid his first visit to Poland in the summer of 1979, virtually the whole nation turned out to greet him. I was there just afterwards and this visit was the only subject of conversation. I was convinced from this moment on that communism could never win. The government’s attempted suppression of Solidarity, the imprisonment of its leaders, only added to the determination of the people to achieve their freedom from the Soviet yoke. I cannot recount the long political story – but the true end of communism came from people power. In June 1989 “round-table” discussions led to a partly elected government. The first non-Catholic prime minister was Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who, in 1979, had invited me to give my first-ever lecture in a communist country.

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Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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