A Pilgrimage to Poland: 40 Years Later

Christopher D. Flis |

One of the benefits of being an independent Financial Planner is to have the option of writing about whatever topic I choose.  The topics typically are squarely centered on Financial Planning and associated topics...I am a Financial Planner.  However, there are far more important things in life besides money.  So from time time to time, venturing into topics slightly off-center from Financial Planning is appropriate.  Moreover, it is not uncommon to garner meaningful financial lessons from other disciplines.  Indeed, the Latticework of Inter-disciplinary Models is one of the more valuable constructs endorsed by Charlie Munger.


This week's topic seemingly diverges significantly from Financial Planning.  We venture back 40 years to June, 1979 where a young Pope John Paul II, the 264th Pope overall and first non-Italian Pope in centuries, is less than one year into his papacy.  A relatively young Pope at 59 years old, Pope John Paul II is embarking upon a return to his homeland for the first time as leader of the Catholic Church.  At the time, Poland is controlled by Communist leaders aligned with the Soviet leadership of the time.  Pope John Paul II originally desired to come back to Poland to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaus in April, 1979.  The communist leaders rejected this request and instead granted permission for Pope John Paul II to come to Poland in June, 1979...this was a decision they would come to regret.

A Brief History of Poland After World War I to 1979

I am simplifying here in order to illustrate a point.  As a consequence of the peace process following World War I, Poland was granted its independence after nearly 100 years of foreign rule.  Eventually, the socialist form of government dominated the landscape leading up to World War II where Poland was the scene of extreme treachery.  Like much of Eastern Europe, Poland fell under Soviet influence and was essentially a communist state after the conclusion of World War II.  The political climate there remained this way until the late 1970s.  In summary, Poland was squarely under Soviet influence at the time of Pope John Paul II's arrival in 1979.

9 Days in 1979

Upon arriving in his homeland, Pope John Paul II walked off his plane at the Warsaw Airport and kissed the ground.  The young Pope would go on to numerous appearances and events in his homeland.  One such event was attended by more than 3 million people...the Polish People, previously severely restricted in their self-expression, finally had a platform not controlled by their Communist rulers.  And to say they took advantage of their new canvas is an understatement.  Indeed, one stanza of applause for their Pope lasted 14 minutes...it is hard to fathom a crowd clapping for 14 straight minutes!

Pope John Paul's message to his fellow Poles was simple..."be good, do not compromise yourselves, and to rely on one another".  With the majority of country living in despair under the communist regime, this message resonated in a way unanticipated by the Polish State Communist Leaders.  Moreover, the Pope's words helped spark the Solidarity movement that began the following year.  While the Polish Communist Leaders intended the Pope's visit as a demonstration of the communist system's efficacy, the Pope's simple words did exactly the opposite. Instead of reinforcing oppression, the Polish people felt empowered to abandon their rulers and to pursue human rights interests and overall freedom.

The Fall of Communism

We all now how the story ends...the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, just 10 years after the Pope's visit to Poland.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was unified, millions of people finally felt the empowerment of freedom, and the Soviet Union was exposed as the imposter it always was.

While it is a bit of a reach to say that the fall of Communism was the result of one man's 9 Day journey in 1979, it is unequivocal that during his papacy, Pope John Paul II meticulously took the air out of the Communist balloon.  It is always difficult to evaluate the historical significance of any man in his own time.  Once the actor has departed and his influence has had a chance to germinate, conclusions are far more easily reached.  In this case, 40 years is ample time to render a decisive verdict.  With near certainty, it can be said that while others indeed played a vital part, perhaps none was more significant than Pope John Paul II in breaking the back of communism in Eastern Europe.

Poland is frequently cited as an illustration of the difference between the Communist state-planned system and the Democratic free-market system.  By virtually any objective standard, Poland is demonstrably better off today than is was under the Communist regime.  True, any system is not without faults.  However, in aggregate, the Poland of today trumps that of yesteryear.

Why is This Important to Me

My great grandmother emigrated (via boat) from Poland some time around 1900 and gave birth to my Grandfather in 1916.  My grandfather married a woman also of Polish heritage and were they ever proud Poles throughout their lives.  Both were fluent in Polish, did their best to teach me about Polish customs, and imbued me with the greatest Polish trait - an untiring work ethic.  They did not do this by talking.  Rather, my grandfather dutifully served as a policeman, a calling from which he retired.  And my grandmother, somewhat ahead of her time, worked for Burroughs (now part of Unisys I believe), and also earned a traditional retirement...with medical benefits, believe it or not.  Together, they co-founded my family's Burger King business, ironically, in 1979....it is still thriving today.

Pope John Paul II visited my grandparents' hometown in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1987.  My grandparents were elated.  Moreover, that day in 1987 was one neither of them ever forgot...one of their own had ascended to the highest level in their Catholic Church.  And not only that, he had sparked a movement in their homeland that jump-started the breaking free from Communist control.

Final Thought

In learning more about Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland 40 years ago, one can garner may lessons.  For me, the most powerful one is the understanding that we are all given certain gifts.  Furthermore, we encounter different situations in life where we have to put those gifts to use.  For Pope John Paul II, he knew the frontal assault on Communism would quickly be stamped out by the regime.  So he pivoted and used one of his many gifts - his unusual ability to inspire - to enlighten every Polish citizen.  In varying his tactics, he hit the Communists with the velvet hammer to which they eventually capitulated.