During more than 20 years as a Foreign Service officer, I had the opportunity to meet a wide variety of individuals, from President Ronald Reagan to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. My work brought me into contact with secretaries of State and Defense as well senior military officers in the Soviet Union, Russia and other countries. I was even fortunate enough to have a private meeting with Pope John II.
The meeting was a result of the job I held at the time. I was in charge of the Polish Desk in the Department of State during the martial law period in Poland. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzel-ski, then president of Poland, was locked in a political battle with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. Walesa and his union, Solidarity, were determined to seize power from Jaruzelski, who was backed up by the Russians. These events occurred prior to the collapse of communism, and Moscow was determined to ensure that its East European allies remained under Soviet control. The events surrounding the rise of Solidar-ity would lead to the collapse of the War-saw Pact.
Unlike its counterparts in many other countries, the U.S. State Department is open to comments from public figures and organizations. We still have our secrets, but we are open to outside in-put. I was on the phone almost daily with the late Al Mazewski, who was head of the Polish-American alliance in Chicago. Mazewski knew the Polish-American community’s views, and we tried to be responsive to his concerns.
We also were in contact with a multitude of other Polish American leaders, including a number of scholars. I mention this because it was one of these individuals, Jan Nowak, who was a Polish hero during World War II, who knew key Polish officials in the Vatican.
In order stay up to date, we would from time to time visit the country we were working on. For me, this also included a visit to the Vatican because the real political/religious power in Poland was the pope. Roman Catholicism was almost synonymous with Polish identity.
So on my way to Poland, I stopped in Rome. With a representative of our embassy there, I went to the Vatican. Unknown to me, Nowak had called the Vatican to set up a meeting with the pope. Walking through the many Vatican halls and past the Swiss Guards was impressive. Eventually, we reached the office of Father Dzvisz (who is now a cardinal in Poland).
He greeted us warmly and we began to discuss the situation in Poland. We were interested in any information the Vatican had on events in Poland or what suggestions the Vatican might have on our policy toward Poland.
After about 15 minutes, Father Dzvisz excused himself. When he re-turned, he asked, “Do you have a few minutes? There is someone who would like to meet you.” Curious, we said, “Of course.”
We then walked down corridors until, all of a sudden, we were in the pope’s private apartment. Pope John Paul II soon appeared and came over to where I was standing, held out his hand and welcomed me to the Vatican.
After I regained my composure, we began to talk. My first indication that the man had a possibility of becoming a saint was the treatment of our conversation. I was determined to speak only Polish, and he showed no discomfort when I made grammatical errors. On the contrary, the pope commented how good my Polish was.
I am a practicing Catholic, so the meeting carried a religious connotation for me. He thanked me for the work I was doing on Poland, noting that the United States was playing an important, even critical, role in our mutual efforts to introduce democracy to Poland. It soon became clear that this pope was a major force in Poland’s attempt to choose its own future.
As I was about to leave, the Holy Father asked me about my family. I told him I had three kids and that the middle one was about to be confirmed. He then told me to tell my son that he would say a “special prayer for him and his confirmation.”
Pope John Paul II is one of most charismatic individuals I have ever met. I expected during my time in the Foreign Service to meet a number of senior officials, but I never expected a saint to be among them.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.