Beginning Again in Poland

As an American, far away, with a deep love for Poland, my deepest sorrow is felt for all the citizens of Poland, for the Polish church, and even for the now-resigned archbishop and his family. There were so many heroic acts by so many people in Poland and its neighboring countries during the Soviet nightmare. The solicitations to help the secret police were constant, seductive, and insistent. Some of these solicitations seemed almost harmless—but, of course, once responded to, they were subject to blackmail, to oblige the weak ones to take further steps in assisting the secret police.

In those days, it was extremely difficult to be on guard in resisting every blandishment. Yet many millions of brave and faithful souls did so, in one of the most beautiful displays of spiritual resistance in human history. The Polish nation and the Polish church were conspicuous in steady, daily, humble but heroic acts of fidelity to the truth.

That is why the recent admission of the Archbishop hurt so much. It was public—it had to be—and it hurt the reputation of the country and the church. Of course, we do not yet know the full truth about what happened. Yet even a small surrender leaves the one who signs a document vulnerable forever to blackmail. This case is such a personal tragedy, and so sad.

But this case can also be a new beginning for a new Poland, with a new openness and a new honesty, and a real accounting for the unpleasant past which all would be happy to forget.

Years ago, during the Second Vatican Council (where I first learned the name of Karol Wojtyla), I wrote a history of the second session of the council in 1963, which was entitled The Open Church. The church should be transparent, like a pane of glass, so that the light of God’s grace may shine into it and out of it.

The great political philosopher Karl Popper made a similar argument about the free society in The Open Society and Its Enemies—except not that grace should shine in and out, but at least honesty and reasonableness.

The two goals—the open society and the open church—are always goals worth striving for. We need constantly to begin anew and to do better than in the past. Often we do this by humble means, such as a well-chosen commission of inquiry, fully trustworthy, that would periodically issue public reports on its findings.

Such a process needs also to be tempered with mercy and forgiveness, for the light of justice is sometimes so overpowering that it is more than humans can bear. This imperative of mercy was the subject of one of John Paul II’s early encyclicals.

As many societies around the world have found out in practice, from Chile to South Africa, the best social cure is at least public honesty and public repentance. Even if nations do not get into the impossible job of meting out exact punishment, if they want social healing they must demand, at least, honesty, truth, openness—and public repentance for wrongs done.

There were so many people in Poland who performed heroically, and not least in the church—both in its ordinary people and in its leadership—that I am sure Poland will exit soon from the present turmoil and heated passions into a new, determined era of beginning again.

Beginning again is the human condition.

Published in First Things January 16, 2007