Alongside Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was one of the leading figures of the Polish Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s. As the archbishop of Kraków and a lecturer at the Catholic University of Lublin, he enjoyed great popularity, especially among young people. His election as pope on October 16, 1978 came as a great surprise. First of all, because it was the first time since 1522 that a cardinal from outside of Italy had been elected pope. Secondly because the incumbent pontiff came from a Soviet Bloc country. For the Poles, the choice of one of their compatriots as pope was a source of pride and joy.
Poland’s communist authorities viewed the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła with consternation. They realised they could not refuse John Paul II (the name Wojtyła took as pope) permission to come to Poland – even though in 1966 the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland had twice refused to allow Pope Paul VI to enter the country.
John Paul II’s visit to Poland took place from June 2-10, 1979, with hundreds of thousands of people gathered at every ceremony. The presence of the Polish Pope and his speeches, whose depth and beautiful language contrasted sharply with the poverty and hypocrisy of communist propaganda, set in motion a true revolution by giving expression to the freedom-seeking aspirations of the Poles and of the Church in Poland, both stifled under communist rule. During his first pilgrimage to Poland, the Pope visited Kraków, Częstochowa, and the museum at the former German concentration camp at Auschwitz, among many other places.
Particularly important was the first mass John Paul II celebrated, at Victory Square in downtown Warsaw (today, Marshal Józef Piłsudski Square). During that mass, the Pope delivered a homily offering a philosophical vision of Poland’s history and a programme for moral renewal. The Victory Square mass was later recognised as the symbolic beginning of the changes that led to the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 and the eventual downfall of communism. The final words of the homily reverberate in Poland to this very day: “Let thy Spirit descend! And make anew the face of Earth. Here on Earth.”