My dear people of St. Mary’s:
There is a story that I have read several times, but have not yet been able to independently verify. On October 16, 1978, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish Defense Minister, was working at his desk in his office in Warsaw, when suddenly church bells all across the city began to ring out. Puzzled, he continued working, when suddenly the door sprang open and one of his assistants came running in, breathless. The man exclaimed in a state of near panic, “General, they’ve just elected a new pope!” Jaruzelski, whose face seldom showed any expression, let alone emotion, replied blankly: “What do we care?” The assistant responded, “Oh we care, General, we care!”
Of course, on that day when the Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, was elected pope, few could have imagined the dramatic impact he would have on the Church and the world. However, recall that when Our Lord died, his followers did not expect the Resurrection, but his enemies did, and they placed a guard on the tomb. So too, when St. John Paul II was elected, faithful Catholics did not at first comprehend that one of the greatest saints of modern times now stood in their midst, but many enemies of Christ and His Church immediately recognized a great foe. And they began to make plans to defeat him.
Ironically, the accession of St. John Paul to the papacy probably helped General Jaruzelski to rise as well. As the people of Poland began to rise up against their communist oppressors, Jaruzelski was chosen to be Prime Minister of Poland. In 1981, he was the one who imposed martial law on the people, in an attempt to crush the emerging pro-democracy movements, like the famous “Solidarity,” headed by the then-unemployed electrician Lech Walesa. It was during his rule that Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, a priest associated with the Solidarity union, was beaten and murdered by agents of the Polish communist secret police. Fr. Popiełuszko was declared “Blessed” as a martyr by the Church in 2010. Jaruzelski was responsible for the silencing of journalists, and the arrests and unlawful imprisonments of thousands of people, and even the killings of many who opposed the government. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, he was forced to resign his position as President of Poland. After a free, democratic election, he was succeeded as President by Lech Walesa.
General Jaruzelski died on Sunday at the age of 90. Still almost universally loathed by the people of Poland, it will take some time before historians can write the definitive account of his crimes against his people. The Catholic journalist Phil Lawler wrote: “One of the most enduring visual images of the Cold War—one of the early signs that the Soviet empire was doomed—was the sight of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish strongman, literally shaking as he addressed the enormous crowd that gathered to greet St. John Paul II on his triumphant return to his homeland.” The photo at left shows the weak strongman, and the strong weak-man facing each other.
Jaruzelski spent his years of forced retirement trying to rehabilitate his reputation and justify his unjustifiable actions. But shortly before his death, the old atheist called for a Catholic priest to administer for him the last rites of the Church of his youth. He also was given a Catholic funeral Mass, attended by Lech Walsea. His eternal judgment is up to Almighty God. But it does seem that St. John Paul and Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko may well have been intercessors for a man who, after a lifetime of living a lie, died grasping for the Truth.