Soviet prisoners of conscience asked Pope St. John Paul II for help

Pope St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. Photo: CNS

WARSAW (CNS): Soviet political prisoners from various backgrounds begged Pope St. John Paul II’s help in secret messages after his 1978 election, according to a former inmate in recollections published for the late pope’s hundredth birthday.

“The pope’s election was received with huge enthusiasm in Soviet labour camps; we sensed this figure had been sent by Divine Providence for a spiritual victory over the evil of communism,” said Myroslav Marynovych, a former vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, who spent a decade in forced labour and internal exile after being arrested for human rights campaigning in 1977.

“We’d never had occasion to write such letters and our place of stay was hardly conducive… But John Paul II’s authority was exceptionally high, whereas most religious leaders in the Soviet Union all depended on the godless regime and inspired no confidence.”

In a May 11 commentary for Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, Marynovych said he and 14 other prisoners, including Orthodox dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov, smuggled a letter to the pope from a Russian labour camp in early 1980, after spending 15 days in punishment cells for celebrating Easter.

He said, “Suffering in Christ’s name is always an honour for Christians and we bore our punishment with a clean spirit. But we realised we should inform Christians worldwide about these events and that’s why we appealed to the Holy Father.”

He added that they later received a coded message: “The pope has your letter and has prayed for you during Holy Mass at the Vatican.”

Marynovych, who later founded and directed Amnesty International in the Soviet Union. Said, “The camps gave me a sense of the deep unity of Christians and taught me a kind of camp ecumenism; it was easy to persecute divided Christians, but Christians spiritually united were a powerful force.” 

He said, “Suffering in Christ’s name is always an honour for Christians and we bore our punishment with a clean spirit. But we realised we should inform Christians worldwide about these events and that’s why we appealed to the Holy Father.”

Dissidents and rights campaigners, notably from Lithuania and Ukraine, also approached the newly elected Polish pope for help, believing he had a special understanding of their plight.

Shortly after his election, Pope John Paul told Poland’s primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, the former “Church of silence” would now speak “with the voice of the pope.”

In a 1997 book, Gift and Mystery, the pope said his priestly vocation had been strengthened by knowledge of Soviet deportees and martyrs sacrificed “on the great altar of history.”

In their letter, the camp inmates said they had attempted to celebrate Easter after an unsuccessful hunger strike demanding access to a Bible and the right to pray and keep crosses.

They asked the pope to take up the issue with Soviet authorities and Russian Orthodox leaders, “who give such blind assurances there is religious liberty in the Soviet Union. In our hard-pressed world, so many need your support and prayer and we didn’t think it possible to write to you about our hardships. But our doubts have now all vanished: please hear us, Your Holiness!”

The commentary and letter were published among reminiscences for the centenary of Pope St. John Paul II’s birth at Wadowice on 18 May 1920.

Marynovych said all religious practices were “strictly forbidden” in Soviet prisons and labour camps into the 1980s. However, he added that many inmates had experienced an “unusually intense religious life,” with some discovering faith for the first time, while the absence of normal rituals often “strengthened receptiveness and openness to a deep awareness of God.”

The former political prisoner, said, “Standing up to these anti-Christian forces, people of all denominations became a source of mutual support, as the spirit of unity in Christ overcame doctrine and dogma.” 

Marynovych received awards for his work, including the 2014 Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the United States Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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