Barely nine months after being elected pope, John Paul II embarked on his first journey back to his homeland — Poland. His election in October 1978 had taken the world by surprise. He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and, more significantly at the height of the Cold War, a man who hailed from behind the Iron Curtain.

John Paul II’s first visit to Poland was laden with symbolism. He was the first pontiff to visit a Communist-ruled country. On his arrival at Okecie Airport in Warsaw (now known as the Warsaw Chopin Airport), he knelt and kissed the ground of his native land. Millions lined the streets to cheer their Pope; an additional 250,000 were in Victory Square for his open-air Mass.

Pope John Paul II during his first official visit to Poland as pontiff (1979).

The communist regime tried to censor the visit. Polish television attempted to minimise the extent of the crowds. The newspapers of the period speculated that this visit was bound to change the church-state dynamic in the Eastern Bloc. None of this dampened the enthusiasm of the crowds, however.

He continually referred to himself as “this Slav” or “this Pole” and made no secret of how his native land shaped his worldview: “I have kissed the ground of Poland on which I grew up, the land from which, through the inscrutable design of Providence, God called me to the chair of Peter in Rome, the land from which I am coming today as a pilgrim.”

The pope’s speeches touched upon essential themes. He inferred that communism and Christianity are incompatible; The New York Times reported that “the concern among party officials about such comments is that when they are spoken on Polish soil by a Polish pope, and heard by millions in neighbouring countries, they tend to remove the taboos the party apparatus has created over 35 years about open discussion of such subjects.”

He raised important questions on the role of states: “The state understands its mission to society according to the principle of subsidiarity; namely, that it wishes to express the full sovereignty of the nation.” Ultimately, the legitimacy of states rested on their ability to serve the people and not subjugate them.

Though his first visit to Poland passed without any clashes or incidents, it undoubtedly left a profound mark. Pope John Paul II was going to be a pope who was shaped by his homeland, and who loved his mother country.

Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.”

The link between religion and the nation is one which has been explored at length by scholars. One of the most fundamental differences, identified by Benedict Anderson, is that “no nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.”

Some may argue that this poses a dilemma to the Christian; how could he or she embrace a faith which is by definition universal and love something which is bounded by territory or culture?

For believing Christians, the civitas terrena does not take precedence over the civitate Dei. Nonetheless, to love one’s country is also a Christian characteristic. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that “Man is a debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so it belongs to piety, in the second place, to show reverence to one’s parents and one’s country.” Aquinas expands on this; the reverence due to one’s homeland also includes “homage” to fellow citizens and the friends of the country.

Aquinas in a portrait by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Edited and re-formatted by SNL.

The mission and work of Pope John Paul II seemed to encompass this reverence for his home country, the rendering of homage to fellow citizens, and a concern for their well-being without a rejection of broader alliances among nations or the universal nature of the Church.

Pope John Paul II expands on issues of patriotism and faith in his last book Memory and Identity published just weeks before his death in 2005. It is a remarkable book on many levels. He documents his 20th century which was characterised by historical and ideological processes which brought about great evil and “provided the setting for their defeat.” He had personal experience of such evils himself since both Nazism and communism took hold of his beloved homeland. Before such evils, man can only forgive.

From the very first moment he appeared at the Loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square, he reminded the faithful that he had come from “a far country.” This statement baffles anyone who hears it. Poland is only two hours away from Rome by air, and it lies in the geographical centre of Europe. Yet, the Iron Curtain made it seem like a very distant place indeed.

This is an important point which needs to be made: patriotism is not merely an appreciation of the history and geography of one’s native land. Rather, it “is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its tradition, its language, its natural features. It is a love which also extends to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius. Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love.”

John Paul II’s definition resonates with that of Aquinas. The native land is not merely the sum of its heritage but also a patria — a nurturing community which “includes the values and the spiritual content that go to make up the culture of a given nation.”

To be a patriot also involves some duties towards one’s native land. The native land is not merely an abstract concept; it involves the “common good of all citizens, and as such, it imposes a serious duty.” It also entails creating an atmosphere which does not subdue and seek to dominate but, rather, which allows citizens to have the freedom to “discover and confirm the truth about being human, about the humanity that belongs equally to man and to woman.”

In patriotism, John Paul II also sees a remedy to the unhealthy nationalism which brought about some of the bloodiest regimes of the 20th century:

Whereas nationalism involves recognising and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love of one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.

In this understanding, therefore, patriotism is not an excuse for jingoism or exceptionalism but, rather, an opportunity for nations to assert their right to participate as equals in a family of nations.

Apart from being a Polish pope, John Paul II was also a quintessentially European one. While he recognised the damage inflicted by communist dictatorships on countries behind the Iron Curtain, he also noted that their Western counterparts were heading in an altogether different direction: “Modern Western European countries have arrived at a stage which could be defined as ‘post-identity.’ It seems to me that one of the effects of the Second World War was to form a common mentality among European citizens, against the background of a continent tending towards unification.”

Despite this, he laments the attempts at creating a chasm between Eastern and Western Europe. Such distinction, he contends, serves political and military purposes and does not take into account the history of the people concerned.

John Paul II at the Polish parliament in 1999. Image licensed under CCA BY-SA 3.0 PL.

Indeed, far from extolling the supremacy of Western Europe, he argues that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have an essential contribution to make within Europe: “The nations of Central and Eastern Europe have preserved their identity, and even consolidated it, despite all that was imposed upon them by the communist dictators. For them, the fight to preserve national identity was a fight for survival.”

John Paul II recognises that the coming together of European countries is a positive phenomenon. Yet, within this process, there is the danger of weakening the identities of various states in Eastern Europe. The experience of totalitarianism also led to a “process of spiritual maturation” whereby many countries in Eastern Europe persevered in maintaining “certain values essential for human life.” The danger now lies “in an uncritical submission to the influence of negative cultural models, widespread in the West.”

This discussion remains pertinent today. In the debate over patriotism and nationalism, the discussion often focuses on territorial integrity. Nonetheless, values and principles are not peripheral to the debate. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, assertive patriotism can and should inform attitudes both on a domestic and an international level. Indeed, Pope John Paul II was a living example of this. ◼️