This is surely not news to anyone following history, but the actual details of the horrendous suffering involved is all too often overlooked. George Weigel provides some historical context in this article.
Martyrdom has been an integral part of Christian life since the Acts of the Apostles. Yet to many Christian minds, “martyrdom” is imaginatively confined to first-century Christianity — a matter of Richard Burton and Jean Simmons defying Jay Robinson’s Caligula while Michael Rennie (St. Peter) looks on paternally and a chorus of “Hallelujahs” brings The Robe to a glorious Hollywood conclusion. This, however, is a serious misconception of the history and geography of martyrdom. Modern totalitarianism caused an effusion of blood in odium fidei that was orders of magnitude greater than anything experienced before. The Commission for New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee of 2000 concluded that there were likely twice as many martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.
The great majority of these twentieth-century martyrs gave their lives for Christ at the hands of communism. Thanks to the new political situation behind the old Iron Curtain it is now possible to describe this almost-forgotten communist war against Christianity in detail and to unlock some of its once closely held secrets. For this was an undercover war as well as a matter of mass murder: It involved spies and spymasters, moles and agents of influence, propaganda, disinformation, and other “active measures,” just as it did slave labor camps and the bullet in the nape of the neck.
Over the past decade, research has begun in the archives of communist-era governments and secret police organizations in Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and even briefly in Moscow. My work on the biography of Pope John Paul II put me in contact with scholars mining this lode of information, several of whom shared materials and insight with me. Thus, over the past several years, and through access to previously top-secret cables and memoranda, I have been able to “eavesdrop” on Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov as they speculated on the threat posed by the 1978 election of a Polish pope: speculations shaped by the reports of communist-bloc moles inside the Vatican. I have likewise been able to “sit in” on negotiations between the Polish communist government and the Holy See on the terms and conditions of John Paul’s second pastoral visit to his homeland; and I have been able to “watch” an effort by the Suba Bezpieczestwa (or SB, the Polish secret police) to influence those negotiations by trying to blackmail the pope. These newly available materials also shed light on Vatican diplomacy’s efforts to find a modus vivendi with communist governments, even as those governments were intensifying their efforts to penetrate the Vatican.
It’s all the stuff of great espionage fiction. Yet it happened. The way the communist war against Catholicism was conducted, the forms of ecclesiastical resistance to it that failed, and the resistance strategies that succeeded all contain important lessons for the future, even as they clarify the immediate past. That past commands attention and respect because of the vast human sacrifices it entailed. It also commands our attention for what it can teach about twenty-first-century Catholicism’s engagement with new threats to religious freedom.
In a dinner conversation in late 1996, Pope John Paul II’s longtime secretary, Stanisaw Dziwisz, said, when speaking of the Catholic Church’s struggle against communism in Poland, “You must understand that it was always ‘them’ and ‘us.’” That is, the struggle between communism and Catholicism was not a matter of episodic confrontations, nor could it be understood by analogy to a parliamentary government and its opposition. It was all war, all the time.
That was certainly the communist view of the matter. From the beginnings of the Bolshevik Revolution, the leaders of Soviet communism regarded the Catholic Church as a mortal threat to their program and their interests. To Lenin and his successors (including Yuri Andropov, the only KGB chairman to become leader of the USSR), the Catholic Church was a vast, wealthy, unscrupulous international conspiracy whose aims included the demise of communism and the destruction of the workers’ state. In the post–World War II period, when the United States was known in KGB circles as the “Main Adversary,” the Catholic Church was understood to be a formidable ideological adversary. Its influence was feared for what it could do to the Soviet position in various countries of the Warsaw Pact. Its historic cultural links to nationalist sentiment in Lithuania and Ukraine threatened Stalin’s inner empire. And it was known to be a principal obstacle to Soviet global objectives, including the export of Marxist-Leninist revolution to the Third World, especially Latin America.
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