KRAKOW, Poland—World leaders praised Pope John Paul II on Sunday for his courageous campaign against communism in Poland and Eastern Europe 20 years ago.
Zofia Balnach praised him, too. And she ought to know: She lived through communism as a practicing Catholic.
Balnach, 79, worshipped furtively and fearfully under the communists, as did millions of other Polish Catholics.
She baptized her kids at a muddy outdoor chapel in Krakow—it was little more than a wooden cross planted in a field—and she collected donations for a church that the communist government refused to build.
"It's because of the pope—and only the pope—that we're free today," Balnach said after attending afternoon Mass at the soaring Church of the Ark in Krakow's Nowa Huta district.
"The pope brought down the Berlin Wall. He got the Soviet soldiers out of Poland. He was magnificent."
Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, the Polish trade-union movement that challenged communist rule in the 1980s, called the pope "the author of the victory over communism."
"Without him there would have been no end to communism, and the end would have been bloody," Walesa said Sunday from his home in Gdansk.
Even Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the hardline communist leader who declared martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, gave credit to the pope for the pro-democracy revolution.
"Of course, the social and economic conditions in Poland were ripe for protest," he said in a TV interview. "But the pope was a detonator who liberated the spirit of the society."
A native of Poland, John Paul II made his first trip there as pope in June 1979, the year after his election to the papacy. He stayed eight days, delivered 46 homilies, and was seen live by an estimated 10 million people.
Some 2 million Poles gathered in a Krakow meadow called Blonia to hear him speak. Official Soviet news reports said turnouts on his trip amounted to "a few small groups of religious fanatics."
The effect of his visit on the downtrodden Poles, of course, was galvanic. And a line from one of his homilies became a kind of mantra for those who later took to the streets to battle the government: "Have courage. I am with you. Be not afraid."
"His 1979 visit started the revolution," said papal biographer George Weigel. ""The 1983 visit continued the revolution, and the 1987 visit was nearly a victory."
Zofia Balnach said she didn't join the political protests in the streets, but she saw John Paul II on every trip he made to his homeland.
She had come to Krakow from eastern Poland in 1951, part of an army of workers drafted to create a bold communist experiment—the building of the massive Lenin Steelworks along with a new "socialist city of the future"" called Nowa Huta.
Zofia worked in the cafeteria at the steel plant, where she met a cement-truck driver named Alfred Balnach. They got married, had two kids, and tried their best to follow their religion without losing their jobs.
The planners of Nowa Huta had left churches out of their designs. That might have been acceptable in other parts of the Soviet empire, but it wouldn't wash in fervently Catholic Poland.
The Nowa Huta steelworkers demanded a church, the government resisted, and the angry stalemate dragged on for years. Finally, backed by the fiery bishop of Krakow (who would later become the pope), the workers began building the church themselves. The construction was financed solely by donations.
What they eventually built was the Church of the Ark, a striking, modernist structure that now serves as both a dramatic political landmark and a simple parish church.
"It's wonderful, isn't it?" Zofia Balnach said proudly, her eyes glistening.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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