Monika Jabłońska’s Wind From Heaven is indispensable reading for anyone wishing to understand the thoughts and actions of the Polish-born Pontiff John Paul II. The book is not a biography in the strict sense. Rather, the author focuses on certain elements of the Pope’s upbringing, life, and activism, while simultaneously bringing attention to lesser-known aspects, such as theater and poetry; hence the subtitle: The Poet Who Became Pope. In effect, Wind From Heaven nicely complements such works as George Weigel’s biography, Witness to Hope (1999), and John O’Sullivan’s The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (2006).
As the author – herself of Polish descent – points out, the Pope’s Polish heritage played a huge role in shaping his worldview. Karol Wojtyła was born in 1920, the same year in which Poland repulsed a major Bolshevik invasion, thereby saving itself and the rest of Europe from a communist onslaught (at least temporarily, of course). In September 1939, the German National Socialists, followed by their Soviet communist co-conspirators, attacked and partitioned Poland. The young Wojtyła’s education at the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Kraków was rudely interrupted by the German invaders, who deported the university’s professors to concentration camps in the Third Reich. Although he managed to avoid the camps or slave labor in Germany, Wojtyła was, like all other Poles under the German occupation, forced to perform compulsory labor, including work in a quarry. It was in 1942, during the height of the Nazi occupation, that Karol Wojtyła ultimately chose the priesthood as his vocation.
His life as a man of the cloth – first as a priest, then as Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków, and, finally, as the ancient city’s Archbishop – coincided with the imposition of the Soviet yoke upon Poland and the communist regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church. Hence, the future Pope’s experiences under both the German Nazi and Soviet communist occupations made him particularly sensitive to the multiple ways in which various shades of totalitarian tyranny pose a dire threat to human life, dignity, and freedom.
In addition, as Wind From Heaven makes clear, John Paul II was profoundly influenced by the Polish self-image as the eastern “bulwark of Christendom” (Antemurale Christianitatis), which traced its origins to the times when Poland shielded Europe from Mongol, Turkish, and Muscovite incursions. This was particularly evident during the 1980s and the Pope’s crusade – alongside the U.S. President, the British Prime Minister, and the Polish Solidarity movement – against the “Evil Empire.” Following the implosion of communism, the notion of Antemurale Christianitatis also had an impact on the Pontiff’s challenge to the “civilization of death” and other manifestations of post-modernist moral relativism, a struggle in which John Paul II hoped Poland would play an important role.
Jabłońska emphasizes that Karol Wojtyła’s interest in theater and poetry also left an imprint on him as a thinker, speaker, and writer. His Polish heritage was a key to understanding him as a playwright. “Wojtyła’s dramas draw upon two major influences. One is literary, namely Polish Romanticism and the literary movement ‘Young Poland,’ or Polish find de siècle. The other is theatrical, namely Wojtyła’s involvement with the Rhapsodic Theater of Mieczysław Kotlarczyk [during the Second World War].” Words and ideas were at the heart of Kotlarczyk’s theater, and this influence was evident in plays written by Wojtyła. The main themes in his dramaturgy were love, suffering, a desire to know and become closer to God, and love of country.
Patriotism – understood as a love of one’s homeland and culture – was always important to the future Pope. “For Karol Wojtyła, homeland is the primeval Mother Earth. It is not an artificial social construct. As he puts it in Memory and Identity, ‘the very idea of “native land” presupposes a deep bond between the spiritual and material, between culture and territory … The native land is the common good of all citizens and as such it imposes a serious duty’ […].” As a clergyman, and later the head of the universalistic Catholic Church, Wojtyła never embraced any kind of narrow ethno-nationalism. Rather, he saw the right to one’s nationality, language, culture, and homeland as a universal human right. Once again, his Polish heritage and his experiences with two totalitarian occupations made him particularly sensitive to the national dimension of human rights and the danger posed by extreme, rabid anti-nationalism.
In many ways, the book is also a defense of logocentrism (i.e. the notion that words must have clear and specific meanings) and moral clarity, both of which the author fears we have lost. Writing of both Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, Jabłońska argues: “The two great men are no longer with us, but our need for moral clarity and moral leadership remains. The world, however, seems different. While we feel that our values—Christian values, such as freedom of conscience and the traditional family—are being threatened, the nature of the threat is less obvious, precisely because the power of the Word—indeed, of any word—is being questioned. We are now battling confusion and obfuscation rather than a well-defined ideology. Various ‘isms’ may seem to have disappeared, but the pernicious ideas they represented are still here, hiding behind new, more benevolent-sounding words. The result is moral chaos and uncertainty of values. Looking to St. John Paul II, as President Ronald Reagan did when the two first met in the Vatican and discovered their shared convictions, can help us rediscover the legacy of courage, hope, and freedom left for us by these two extraordinary leaders with such a sense of purpose. Let our own words be likewise yes and no.”
Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributorto SFPPR News & Analysis.