In the mid-nineteenth century, the poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz dramatized the theme of his suffering Poland as the “Christ of Nations” and, deprived of its national identity for two centuries, the agony worsened when, in an image borrowed by many, Poland was crucified between the two thieves of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. It was not the West’s proudest moment when President Roosevelt complained to Stalin at the Yalta Conference that “Poland has been a source of trouble for over five hundred years.” The same Roosevelt had found it convenient to accept the Soviet propaganda attempt to blame the Katyn Forest massacres on the Germans. Pope John Paul II lamented Yalta in the encyclical Centesimus Annus. That will resonate in the annals of papal teaching more than recent magisterial concerns about the responsible use of air conditioning and the like. For those who have been crucified by tyrants, acquiescence to evil is more consequential that what can or cannot be done about ozone.
On July 6 in Warsaw, in Krasinski Square, the president spoke of a culture with which a generation of “millennials” have been unfamiliar: “Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.”
Armchair journalists, for whom the “Christ of Nations” is an enigma, resented “a tiny speech, a perfunctory racist speech,” “xenophobic” and “a catalogue of effrontery” and a comparison was made with Mussolini. In 1978, Solzhenitsyn once was pilloried for similar themes during a commencement address in Cambridge, Massachusetts: First Lady Rosalynn Carter, with limited experience of Gulags, said he did not know what he was talking about. Reagan was advised by his Chief of Staff Howard Baker and National Security Advisor Colin Powell not to tell Mr. Gorbachev to take down the Berlin Wall. They thought it was “extreme” and “un-presidential.” Such commentators might have called the Funeral Oration of Pericles “bellicose” and Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury “demagogic” and Washington’s “Farewell Address” in Fraunces Tavern “lachrymose and exploitive.” While not making rhetorical comparisons between the Warsaw Speech and what Lincoln said at Gettysburg, for times change and with it their demotics, in 1863 the Harrisburg Patriot & Union mocked “the silly remarks of the President” and sniffed: “… for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
The Warsaw speech mentioned three priests: Copernicus, John Paul II and Michael Kozal. The latter was the bishop of Wloclawek who was martyred by the Nazis in Dachau along with 220 of his priests in 1943. After lengthy torture, the Nazi doctor Joseph Sneiss injected him with a dose of phenol “to make easier” his way to eternity. St. John Paul II beatified Bishop Kozal two days after Reagan’s Berlin speech. Dr. Sneiss has his disciples now in much of Europe and he would have a busy practice today on our own Golden Shores, in California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the nation’s very capital.
Among the irritations in the Warsaw speech were these words: “We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.” As that was being said, the parents of a gravely ill child, Charlie Gard, were tussling with government officials in London who did not want to release their infant to them.
A Polish philosopher, Zbigniew Stawrowski, has written:
The fundamental cleavage is not the West v. Islam or the West v. the rest, but within the West itself: between those who recognize the values of Judaeo-Christian Graeco-Roman culture and those who use terms like “democracy,” “values,” “rights” but pervert the latter. So it means democracy of the elites, values of secularism, rights to kill Charlie Gard, marriage that has nothing to do with sex, sex that … is a “private” matter to be funded by the confiscatory state and your duty to support this incoherence…
The Polish king Jan III Sobieski rescued Christian civilization at the gates of Vienna in 1683. That was one of the “troubles” that Poland has caused in the past five hundred years. We survive because of such troublesome behavior.
Just before the Warsaw speech, former president Obama teased the cautions of the Logan Act by making a foreign policy speech in Indonesia, in which he warned against “an aggressive kind of nationalism.” He was never guilty of that in his many contrite speeches to foreign countries Muslim and other. At the same time, in an interview with the French journal La Croix, the new Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, denounced “an exaggerated patriotism in the United States,” and alleged that, “President Trump appeals to the dark side of Americans. He speaks to fears, to insecurities.” The throngs of Poles who cheered the president in Warsaw did not think that he was appealing to their dark side, for their national experience had tutored them harshly in what really makes darkness dark. Busy as they were preparing picnics and fireworks, few people in New York and New Jersey seem to have read La Croix and the torch carried by “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the State of Liberty, which is near Newark, was not unplugged.
Over the July 4 weekend, a large conference of invited Catholic leaders was held in Orlando, Florida, organized as “an ongoing initiative of the Bishops’ Working Group on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” Undaunted by the failure of countless conferences and “renewal programs” over recent decades to accomplish their stated purpose, the organizers cannot be faulted for a lack of optimism in thinking that a new missionary zeal may be born from several days of speeches, seminars, “dialogues” and an occasional performance of soporific “Christian” elevator music. The tone was upbeat, and one does not want to squelch the Spirit, but the general tone was of human optimism rather than supernatural hope, and not altogether more reassuring than Captain Smith telling the passengers on the top deck of Titanic to ignore any pieces of ice.
Orlando is not Warsaw and Orlando’s Disney World is not Krasinski Square, which was a buffer between the Warsaw Ghetto and the rest of the city. Sleeping Beauty’s castle is safe in Orlando, but the Nazis demolished the Badeni Palace facing Krasinski Square. If Catholics in the United States would learn about zeal for the Faith, they might consider a trip to Krasinski Square where, in place of Mickey Mouse, is a monument to the Warsaw Uprising. It is a silent instruction about “the dignity of the human person” without cool entertainers and smiling clergymen preaching with “face microphones.”
On the 150th anniversary of the editorial in the Harrisburg Patriot & Union disdaining Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg, the editors of that newspaper’s successor, The Patriot News very gentlemanly, and indeed nobly, rescinded those earlier articles:
…a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media. The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record—but we must do as conscience demands. In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot News regrets the error.
There is latitude of opinion and taste for assessing the “timeless eloquence” of any modern oratory, of which our nation has been bereft during the last administration despite all sorts of efforts to convince us that Demosthenes haunted the Potomac, even if the presidential speeches were inchoate in logic and blighted in diction. But it would be much in the order of natural virtue, let alone Christian justice, to ask an apology from those numerous savants who said in 2016 that the man who spoke with lasting significance in Warsaw on July 6, 2017 is “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.”
Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).