No one knows how long the Cold War might have continued were it not for his influence in bringing down the regimes of the Warsaw Pact. But it was precisely in his native Poland that the first free elections in East-Central Europe were held in May 1989, leading rapidly to waves of emigration and protests in other countries that culminated in the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. So it is doubtful that I would have ventured to then-Czechoslovakia in 1990—a highly influential time in my life, coming on the heels of college graduation—had it not been for his role in inspiring Polish Catholics to struggle for religious freedom and a government more responsive to the needs and will of the people.
In addition to befriending both Lutherans and Catholics in Slovakia, and coming to understand the struggles they had faced with the old regime, I observed a tangible resurgence in faith, a new flowering in the cultural sphere. One that was also necessary to counteract the freight train of consumerism, with its spiritual nihilism, barreling their way.
The one time I got so see that pontiff in person was in October 1994, when I took a bus trip with a Slovak chorus – a civic rather than religious group, but one with a considerable repertoire of sacred music. And we travelled on a shoestring, nearly 40 of us on a bus, travelling from 6 AM on a Saturday morning, sleeping as the vehicle rolled through the Alps and down the Apennine peninsula, finally arriving before noon to sing in a side chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Mass was celebrated by a Slovak priest, who would also be our guide during our five days in Rome. We visited sites including the Institute of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, a Slovak organization founded by refugees of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.
But the highlight was seeing John Paul II on St. Peter’s Square, at a Wednesday audience. He rode in the Popemobile down the aisles arranged among the thousands of folding chairs, waving to the crowds. After ascending the white steps under the front façade of the basilica, he gave a brief homily. Then he greeted various groups, acknowledging each country and nationality in each given language. Many other choirs had come. When an English group gave a particularly enthusiastic response, standing and cheering, he said, “I encourage you to sing.” And so they sang a hymn.
And then our Slovak group got its turn, singing the stately “V sedmobrežnom kruhu Ríma,” the Slovak papal hymn. The bishop of Banská Bystrica was present, along with other clergy and seminarians, and I felt oddly privileged to be among such a group of Slovaks – even if many choir members, like me, were not Catholic.
At least I wasn’t yet Catholic, but still discerning. Despite my Slovak connections, the most inspiring thing I witnessed at this event was the multinational crowd, each group singing and cheering in its own tongue, each proud of its own identity. Yet all relished their roles as part of an organic body.
I continued my discernment until John Paul’s death in 2005. I got up at 4 AM to watch his funeral live from Columbus, Ohio. I’d read in the days since his passing about how Poles had travelled to the Eternal City in trains and buses, on sleepless journeys with little money, and recalled the similar way I’d gone there with the Slovak choir. As the crowds held aloft signs in various language, the Italians with their “Santo subito!” banners and white-and-red Polish flags everywhere, I reveled in the universality of the display, transported back to St. Peter’s Square as I’d seen it on that day in 1994. It was then I knew I had to become a Catholic – and I did so the following Easter.
In the years since, I’ve learned more and more about the underground Church in Eastern Europe, about the life of John Paul, including his efforts to clean the stains of historical anti-Semitism. I’ve read his Memory and Identity—in both English and Polish—and understand his desire that Europe might “breathe with both lungs,” that is, overcome its East-West divisions.
Those projects have never been completely fulfilled, but I hope that, by my writing and music, among other endeavors, I can do my small part in bringing about the understanding among peoples that was so central to John Paul II’s life.