On March 23, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) hosted the conference “Knights of Liberty” focusing on the history of Bl. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Pope St. John Paul II, and President Ronald Reagan whose words and actions led to the collapse of communist regimes in Europe, beginning with the demise of communism in Poland in 1989. The conference was organized by Dr. Monika Jablonska, Senior Fellow at VOC and author of a new book on St. John Paul II, a Pope for All Seasons, and co-sponsored by the Polish National Foundation. The Polish Institute of Culture and Research at Orchard Lake participated in the conference with its director Dr. John Radzilowski.
Participants gave both academic and personal reflections on the role of the three “Knights of Liberty,” and continuing importance today. After welcoming remarks by Poland’s ambassador to the U.S., Marek Magierowski, the first part of the conference focused on Bl. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński who as Primate of Poland served as the moral leader of Poland in the absence of a government that reflected the will of Polish people. Prof. Kazimierz Braun, emeritus professor of theater at SUNY Buffalo, and a noted author, gave the keynote remarks for the first session. He was a friend of the late Holy Father but also knew Bl. Cardinal Wyszyński. The professor told the story of meeting the Primate with his father shortly after the war and how when his father was imprisoned by the communist, the Primate became his spiritual father. Prof. Braun and the panelists that followed his remarks, emphasized Bl. Cardinal Wyszyński’s role as “uncrowned king” of Poland, providing a rallying point for a nation still traumatized by war and occupation and presenting a strong moral and spiritual alternative to the regime. (Dr. Radzilowski’s remarks to the conference on Bl. Cardinal Wyszyński can be found in a companion piece to this article.)
The second part of the conference focused on Pope St. John Paul II which was especially timely given the political attacks in sections of the Polish media that have sought to besmirch his legacy. Dr. George Weigel, the leading biographer of the late Holy Father and Bishop Sławomir Oder, postulator for the canonization of St. John Paul II, gave the keynote remarks. Both speakers emphasized both the historical importance of St. John Paul II but also the continued relevance of his witness and written work. Dr. Weigel pointed out the late Holy Father’s critical insight that culture rather than economics or politics, was the driving force for human affairs. This insight not served to help undermine the rule of communist dictators in Europe but can help us better understand the current state of affairs in our nation and the world.
The third part of the conference addressed the role of President Ronald Reagan, especially his relationship to St. John Paul II and the Polish opposition to communism. A panel of distinguished former advisors to the late president and academics specializing on this topic emphasized the huge impression St. John Paul II made on Reagan even before he was elected president. His former advisors recalled that during the 1979 presidential campaign, Reagan watch TV coverage of the Polish Pope’s first pilgrimage to Poland and the massive crowds that greeted. After watching in silence for several minutes, Reagan turned to his advisors and said “The Pope is the key. The Pope is the key. The Pope is the key!” Reagan then became the first American president to treat the Holy See as a crucial diplomatic ally, especially in opposing “the evil Empire,” his apt description of the Soviet imperium.
The closing part of the conference highlighted the remarks of Prof. Ryszard Legutko, a professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, member of the European Parliament, and author of the book The Demon in Democracy. Prof. Legutko highlighted both the differences and similarities of the three “Knights of Liberty.” While quite different in background and temperament, all three men understood the importance of moral witness in opposing communism. The final panel further emphasized this point in examining the lessons these three figures in light of the continuing danger of communist regimes today in places such as Cuba, North Korea, and especially China. Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, President of the VOC, noted that the Chinese regime seems to especially fear criticism from moral witnesses, especially in light of its record of human rights abuses. Thus the “Knights of Liberty” can provide important examples for the ongoing struggle for truth and human rights in all corners of the world.