As a 17-year-old boy in 1939, Karol Wojtyla saw his native land run over with German tanks, the skies filled with diving Stukas, his people killed and enslaved. As a talented linguist and actor, young Karol had gained entrance to Krakow’s Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a clandestine school for drama. While the Germans were taking over his country, his father died. His mother passed away when he was nine, and his older brother, a physician, three years later. After seeing the murderous nature of Nazism first-hand, he avoided deportation to Nazi death camps by working in a mining quarry (1940-44) and then in the Solvay Chemical Factory. After the war, the Russians took over his land and became its new master. Karol Józef Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II, held a deeply seated knowledge of the basic savagery of Socialism. He was to speak out against it for the rest of his life.
I saw John Paul in Anchorage in February 1981 when he celebrated mass on the Park Strip. I’m a Christian but not a Catholic, and went to see him out of curiosity. He passed by within arms length in his “Popemobile,” a sturdy, healthy man with a catching smile. He spoke in Latin, but his demeanor was serious, warm, genuine and intelligent. I did not know the meaning of his words, but his underlying kindness and sense that he was personally wishing me well struck me in a profound way. Here was a world-renowned individual who had the ability to touch my heart. I instantly liked him and admired his message.
His message that day and in part throughout his Papacy was: We are all God’s children. We must therefore love and take care of each other. Your skin, nationality, age or wealth are meaningless. You deserve to live in freedom. It was clear to me he meant every word he spoke.
I followed his career ever since seeing him in Alaska in 1981. It was hard not to. He was constantly on the go, flying to Israel, Micronesia, Japan, South America, Africa, to his native Poland. Wherever he traveled, his message of love, of freedom, his sincerity, his man-of-the-people style, his endless openness and friendliness simply jumped out at you. All of this including his appreciation for the American impulse toward freedom made me a life long admirer.
It has often been said that John Paul and President Reagan together did more than any two other men to defeat world Communism, bring down the Berlin Wall and free Poland.
John Paul was too wise to directly attack the Communist authorities when he went to Poland as Pontiff. He instead spoke directly to the people with a message of hope and individual liberty, and a return to moral values. His visits, which attracted massive crowds, soon took on the power of a liberator, one who could defeat the Communist rulers of his homeland with reason and personal dignity alone.
Lech Walesa, the man who brought free trade unionism to Poland as a means of defeating the Communists, signed Solidarity’s originating document with a “souvenir Pope Pen.” Walesa said that John Paul had brought back moral values, which served as a detonator, and liberated the spirit of society, giving it strength. This liberation spread throughout Eastern Europe, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In recent years, John Paul suffered from a string of physical infirmities. In 1992, he had a tumor removed from his colon, dislocated his shoulder in ‘93, broke his femur in ‘94 and had his appendix removed in ‘96, not to mention the results of a near fatal shooting in ‘81. Later, his Parkinson’s disease, his bent back and his shaking hands took nothing from his almost cherubic innocence and benevolence pouring out of him.
In the last few months as this gentle man who literally changed the world by persuasion and personal moral dignity was fading, an incident occurred which I hold deeply as summarizing the character of John Paul. He tried to release doves from his apartment, but they would not fly out the window. It was as if the Pope was so good, so important to the world, the birds chose to stay with him instead of gaining their freedom. This was in my eyes symbolic of his true character. He was such a good and decent person that even the animals understood.
When I think of Pope John Paul II’s magnificent record, especially where it involved basic decency and hatred of tyranny, I am moved and very grateful. More, this fact is so obvious that most of the world feels the same.
Through tears I say to him, good-bye great and kind man. You were a wonderful role model to the world. Requiescent in Pace.
Rep. Vic Kohring serves Wasilla and the Mat-Su in the Alaska State Legislature
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