Thirty years ago this weekend, I remember vividly watching the TV as a student in Dublin as the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November 1989. It was one of those moments when you knew history was being made, one of those defining events that stand beside the day Kennedy was shot, or when Mandela was released from prison or September 11th 2001. Since it was build in 1961, the Berlin wall came to symbolise the great gulf between the Communist East and Capitalist West, between America/her allies and the Soviet Union. This wall was the iron curtain and the battle line of the Cold War. Now it came tumbling down.
The collapse of the wall may have happened that day but change was taking place long before that. In June that year, partially free elections in Poland were emphatically won by the Solidarity party, paving the way for the first non-Communist government to be formed in that country since World War II. Uprisings and protests in other countries followed suit, demanding democratic reforms. On 5th November 500,000 people protested in East Berlin with an energy and a momentum that continued four days later with the collapse of the wall.
For many commentators, the events in Poland began the tidal wave of change. The victory of the Solidarity party in the elections of 1989 came after a momentous visit by Pope John Paul II in June 1979 as he returned to his native land for the first time since his election as Pope in October 1978. During that historic visit, John Paul II didn’t mention politics or economics once. What he pressed instead was the cause of religious freedom by preaching a moral and cultural revolution over the heads of the Communist regime. On that visit John Paul II drew on Catholic and Polish sources to insist that culture was, is and always will be the most dynamic force in history, allowing us to resist tyranny and inspiring us to build and sustain free societies. To his beloved Poles, John Paul II reminded them of the dignity of their conscience, their divine origin and the glorious destiny to which they were called. He said to them: ‘You are not who they say you are. Remember who you really are, own the truth of your history and your culture and you will find the tools of resistance that totalitarianism cannot match’. John Paul’s words lit a fire that could not be put out. Its flames and heat were not confined to Poland but spread across Europe.
What are we to make of this lesson from history? That faith in God can and does change the world. Here is a lesson that should be heeded in our own times when God is being increasingly pushed out of public life. John Paul’s words to the Polish lifted them up to see a future that Communism did not allow them to see. It was a revolution of conscience that understood humanity in a new light that did not come from itself but from God who raised their dignity to a nobility of soul and a strength of spirit.
The story of St John Paul’s role in the fall of Communism and the velvet revolution is intriguing but its significance does not end there. It is a reminder to all Catholic Christians that our faith cannot be kept private for it must be lived out publicly. In every age and time, dark forces try to reduce the dignity of the human person or convince Christianity that her insistence on the sacredness of human life and dignity is too high. There is always the danger of more walls being built and elements in our culture destroying genuine freedom and mutual trust. For us as people of faith, we resist what we believe causes walls and barriers to be raised up – when people forget God. For in the words of George Weigel: ‘When a corrupt culture, including desperately defective ideas about the human person, is married to modern technology , the result is human suffering on an unprecedented scale. That, at bottom, is why the 20th century unfolded the way it did. The barbarism stemmed from the fact that people, having forgotten God, forgot who and what they were, and could be’ (The Fragility of Order, Ignatius Press, 2018, p. 158).
As we look back on the fall of the Berlin wall 30 years ago this weekend, may we see how faith can and does transform the world and especially how we can become part of that change and tear down other walls that obstruct the dream of God to unite all peoples together and to Himself.