Thirty years ago this week, the Bishop of Rome returned to Poland for the first time since his recent election to the papacy. America's premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, is not ambiguous in his judgment of what happened next: "When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland -- and ultimately everywhere -- would come to an end." Professor Gaddis is right: the Nine Days of John Paul II, June 2-10, 1979, were an epic moment on which the history of the twentieth century pivoted, and in a more humane direction.
What did John Paul talk about during the Nine Days? He didn't talk about politics; indeed, beyond the ritual exchanges of formalities with government officials at the arrival ceremony in Warsaw on June 2 and the departure ceremony from Cracow on June 10, the Pope acted as if the Polish communist regime did not exist. Rather, he spoke over, around, and beyond the regime directly to the people of Poland, not about what the world usually understands as power, but about people power -- the power of culture and spiritual identity. "You are not who ‘they' say you are," the Pope proposed, in a number of variations on the same theme; "let me remind you who you really are."