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The weakness of tyranny

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Blessed John Paul II loved the Christmas season. Guests in the papal apartment during his pontificate found the seasonal decorations up early in Advent; and, following Polish custom, they stayed up until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The Christmas meal was traditionally Polish. Every year, John Paul would call his lay friends in Cracow, all assembled in one apartment, and they would sing Polish carols together for hours, over the phone.

Thirty years ago, however, the season took on a more somber tone. For on the night of Dec. 12-13, 1981, the Polish state, through the Polish army, invaded Polish society and imposed martial law throughout the country. There was no provision for martial law in Poland's communist legal code, so what the Jaruzelski regime declared was, technically, a "state of war." It was a fitting phrase, if unintentionally ironic.

On Christmas Eve, John Paul II placed a lighted candle in the window of the papal apartment, a gesture of solidarity with an international initiative begun in Switzerland by two clergyman, to protest the communist attempt to crush the Solidarity movement. The papal World Day of Peace Message for Jan. 1, 1982, condemned "the false peace of totalitarian regimes" and at the Angelus that day, the Pope asked everyone to pray for Poland, for what was at stake there was of great importance, "not only for a single country, but for the history of man."

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it now seems clear that the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 was not an act of strength but one of weakness, by a regime so incapable of commanding the allegiance of those in whose name it claimed to rule that it could only compel obedience by violence. It took some time for this to become clear in Poland, a country frequently burdened by crushed hopes; John Paul's second pastoral pilgrimage to his homeland, in June 1983, did a lot to raise the spirits of his countrymen -- who rallied their energies such that, by 1987, the Pope could spend his third pilgrimage home laying the cultural and moral foundations for a post-communist Poland, which was born two years later in the Revolution of 1989.

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