During his 27-year pontificate, St. John Paul II traveled far more than any other pope, encountering the faithful around the world. He canonized more saints than all of his predecessors in the previous five centuries combined and left a vast and rich collection of teaching. His papacy had an unprecedented impact on the Church and the world, illustrated by the pivotal role he played in the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
The film Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, which aired throughout the United States and Canada in 2016, documents the spiritual revolution that led to the fall of the communist regime in Europe — and the part that Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, played in the process.
The film’s narrator, Jim Caviezel, best known for his role of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, visited Poland March 28- April 2 at the invitation of the Knights of Columbus. Assisted by Knights in the pope’s homeland, to which the Order expanded in 2006, Caviezel promoted the Polish version of the documentary, the work of the Order and the teachings of John Paul II.
“We often think of political or economic forces changing history, but John Paul II understood that men and women live and die for great ideas. They live and die in defense of human dignity, and therefore, he was essential to this new birth of freedom on the European continent,” explained Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, who served as executive producer of Liberating a Continent.
It is estimated that during World War II Poland lost 6 million citizens, which accounted for more than 20 percent of its population. As a result of deliberate extermination efforts, 1 in 3 priests and professors, 1 in 4 lawyers and about 40 percent of medical doctors were killed. Nearly two-thirds of the buildings in Warsaw, the nation’s capital, were completely destroyed.
After the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945, the Soviet communists took control of a demographically and economically depleted Poland, incorporating it into the Eastern Bloc. As the new regime maintained power in Poland using terror, propaganda and surveillance, hope for an imminent victory over the powerful Soviet system soon grew dim.
Liberating a Continent explains how the unprecedented election of a Polish pope in 1978 sent shock waves throughout the world and gave a “new awareness” to citizens living behind the iron curtain after decades of oppression.
Many of the heads of state, historians, foreign policy experts and Church leaders who are interviewed in the film emphasize the great symbolic role of John Paul II’s first apostolic visit to his homeland as pope in 1979. In their opinion, it was the spark that ignited the peaceful protest movement that grew over the next decade, leading to the eventual dissolution of the Eastern Bloc.
“You must divide the post-war history of Poland between the period before June 2, 1979, and after June 2, 1979. The dividing line marks two very different eras,” said Dominican Father Maciej Zięba in a featured interview, citing the date of John Paul II’s arrival in his homeland as pope.
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Kraków and former secretary of John Paul II, also attests to the profound impact of the apostolic journey. “There is no doubt,” he said. “You could say that everything began there in Victory Square.”
The documentary depicts that crucial moment in the center of Warsaw, as John Paul II concluded his homily on the vigil of Pentecost with these words: “Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land!”
Instead of criticizing communism directly, the pope undermined the very foundations of Marxism by emphasizing the dignity of man and his work, the brotherhood of humanity, and man’s destiny beyond temporal prosperity.
As John Paul II would later state in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, “The fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature.”
His nine-day pilgrimage in 1979 reclaimed the Polish people’s faith. A year later, the Solidarity movement — the first independent labor union in the bloc — was formed. To this day, John Paul II is called the “spiritual father of Solidarity,” which played the role of a formalized, mass resistance movement against the regime.
Norman Davies, a well-known historian of Poland, explains in the film, “Without this week of his visit in ’79, the Solidarity movement of 1980 was unthinkable.”
Even Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the head of the communist state of Poland who instituted martial law in the nation in December 1981, described the apostolic visit as the “detonator” which blew communism into the air.
In response to French foreign minister Pierre Laval in 1935, Joseph Stalin famously asked, “The pope? How many divisions does he have?”
Liberating a Continent tells the story of how John Paul II’s spiritual dynamism and revolution of conscience, which led to the rebirth of European freedom, was a definitive answer to Stalin’s question, which is posed at the beginning of the film.
In the words of Cardinal Dziwisz, John Paul II led the “largest revolution in history without the shedding of blood.”
“There was no way that you could contest Soviet power by force,” explained Davies. “It had to be contested by spiritual power by convincing people that there was another way to live, and he did it.”
In the teaching of John Paul II, the path to regain freedom did not end with the fall of communism. He further emphasized the need for a new evangelization to fill the emptiness that follows the collapse of totalitarian regimes.
In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II wrote, “With the fall of the great anti-Christian systems in Europe, first of Nazism and then of Communism, there is urgent need to bring once more the liberating message of the Gospel to the men and women of Europe.”
The spiritual revolution depicted in Liberating a Continent is a crucial part of the history of the Polish people. Now, more than a decade after the death of John Paul II, educating a new generation about his influence on the world and the European political sphere remains an essential task.
With this in mind, Liberating a Continent was recently brought to John Paul II’s homeland with the help of the Knights of Columbus in Poland.
“When we recall the words he spoke on his first visit to Poland, we see that they are still relevant, there is no need to update them,” said Andrzej Anasiak, immediate past state deputy of Poland. “We have an obligation, especially in Poland, to pass on the teachings of John Paul II to the new generations, to the young people who have not been fortunate enough to meet him.”
The Knights of Columbus has a particular reason to promote John Paul II’s teachings, Anasiak added. “St. John Paul II was a unique saint to the Knights. It is due to him that the Order developed in Europe.”
On April 2, the 12th anniversary of the Polish pope’s death, the documentary aired on TVP1 — the largest public television station in Poland.
Caviezel, the film’s narrator, traveled to Poland to promote the documentary and shared his enthusiasm for John Paul II’s teachings and for the nation.
“It wouldn’t be Jim Caviezel playing Jesus if it wasn’t for John Paul II,” he said in an interview with the Polish weekly magazine wSieci, describing the impact of the saint on his life as an actor.
“I understood that I could not be satisfied by mediocrity,” he added, emphasizing how John Paul II’s witness affected his life.
In an interview with Gość Niedzielny, Poland’s largest Catholic weekly, Caviezel also said, “Forbidden fruits will never make you a real man. To become a real man means that you take full responsibility and make courageous, outward acts of love. Just like John Paul II.”
During his visit, Caviezel visited the memorial and museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp where more than 1 million were murdered, as well as the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which commemorates the heroism of the Polish resistance during World War II.
“I did not experience the totalitarian powers. But visiting Auschwitz, where Maximilian Kolbe gave his life for a fellow prisoner, helped me to realize the scale of suffering of the Polish people,” Caviezel explained in an interview.
At the annual Catholic Publishers Fair in Warsaw, Caviezel signed hundreds of Liberating a Continent DVDs. Hosted by the Polish Knights, the opportunity for the public to meet with him generated great interest. Some people traveled hundreds of miles for the limited edition of the film, a photo and Caviezel’s autograph.
“One of the greatest consequences of this premiere in our country and the visit of Jim Caviezel has been the increased profile of the Knights of Columbus,” said Anasiak.
It is not often, Anasiak explained, that “an actor of this caliber comes to us, recalls the greatness of the Polish pope and reminds us of what is often forgotten: that a man must constantly grow in faith.”
Partnership with Poland’s more than 10,000 Catholic parishes also contributed to the increase of interest in the Order. Polish Knights sent official posters to hang in each church, and many parishes shared information in their Sunday bulletins and invited parishioners to watch the film’s television premiere on the anniversary of John Paul II’s death.
District deputies and grand knights report that they have received many inquiries and are welcoming new members thanks to the documentary.
In this way, the Knights are helping to ensure the continuation of the Polish pope’s legacy — a spiritual revolution that extends far beyond bringing freedom to countries in Europe.
“John Paul II’s legacy,” Supreme Knight Anderson explained, is the universal message that “freedom is a dramatic experience that has to be lived every day, and the challenge of freedom is at its very core a moral, personal challenge.
For more information about Liberating a Continent, see page 2 or visit jp2film.com.
TOMASZ ADAMSKI writes from Kraków, Poland, where he is a member of St. Brother Albert Council 15128.
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