I will start my report with the words of Saint John Paul II spoken on November 7, 1981, during the handover of the Polish House named after John Paul II in Rome:
“I do not have to hide this special connection that connects me and which I deeply feel with the Church and the nation from which I came, with all my compatriots, both living in our homeland and abroad”.
Today, it is estimated that about 20 million Poles and people of Polish origin live outside Poland. These are people who left Poland for various reasons, economic or political, and who have been living in a foreign country for many generations or for several months or years.
One might wonder what connects a Pole living in the USA, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden and other countries of residence with his home country? Do we, Poles, called Polonia or Poles living abroad, have something more in common than just a common term? Are we still a big family with common roots – Poland? The answer is one and still valid. We are united by our faith in family, Christianity, our culture and traditions.
October 16, 1978 at 5:30 p.m. is the date that forever changed the image of the Polish nation and Poland in the international arena. On that day, neither Poles nor the Polish diaspora knew what this choice could bring, what changes would take place in the world and how we, the Polish diaspora and Poles living abroad, would be perceived by the countries of our residence.
A Pole was called to the papal throne – Karol Wojtyła, who, already Pope John Paul II, spoke as follows during his first speech after the conclave: “I was called from a distant country, but always so close in the community of faith and Christian tradition”.
From that moment on, John Paul II, apart from values for the mission of the universal Church, becomes an important signpost for Poles in Poland. He becomes especially close to the Polish community and Poles living abroad because of his new status – an emigrant who cares deeply about Poland and national identity. John Paul II became an emigrant, one of us.
John Paul II forever changed “the face of the earth of this land of Poland” and of the whole of Europe and the world. He awakened hopes for the Polish nation, immersed in its dark political situation. He awakened in us – the Polish diaspora – a partially dusty national spirit. Thanks to this, Polonia has strengthened its forces to help Poland in a difficult political situation in every possible way from every corner of the world. The Polish community and Poles living abroad have become one family again in the fight for a better tomorrow for the entire Polish nation. And the movement called “Solidarity” changed Poland and Europe forever.
Another important aspect of John Paul II’s influence on the Polish community is his teaching, in which he pointed to the understanding of the human person and the issue of emigration itself. John Paul II pointed to the rights of emigrants, which are a consequence of human rights. He strongly emphasized the defense of the emigrant against the displacement of his mother language and national culture. He emphasized that a person’s great value is his or her national identity.
It was thanks to John Paul II that people of Polish origin living outside Poland strengthened themselves in preserving and developing cultural identity, which became the power and inspiration in creating new values in shaping the face of Polish life.
Polonia once again began to create and strengthen its national spirit, where the Christian faith from which it arose was the basic essence. Thanks to the Pope and his great power of speech, the Polish community realized that in order to create a future in emigration, we cannot cut ourselves off from our roots, which are the key to understanding ourselves. That is why the Polish diaspora and Poles living abroad care so much about their native language, they care about the bond with their home country, at least on the cultural level.
John Paul II also drew our attention to the dangers lurking in emigration. He pointed out that the revealed truth – the Gospel reaches people in the context of a certain culture, and the loss of inherited cultural values may consequently lead to the loss of faith, especially when the new environment is devoid of the Christian character that was a feature of the culture in which we were brought up. It is thanks to Pope John Paul II that the Polish diaspora did not lose its Christian faith, but became even stronger in it.
Pope John Paul II gave the Polish community a better understanding of the concept of the nation and the function of the Church in its formation. The Polish diaspora and Poles living abroad have well understood that the nation is, in its essence, a large family united by many ties, the most important of which are cultural ties. A nation is not only a community of loosely connected individuals, it is a special synthesis of speech, experience, thinking, values, faith, tradition, and generally speaking, CULTURE.
The Polish diaspora and Poles abroad became proud emigrants after the election of the Pole Karol Wojtyła as Pope. It was understood that in the theological and religious aspect, life in emigration is a kind of task, mission and a kind of mission towards the societies of the country of settlement. Citizens of the countries of residence have acquired a deeper kind of respect for Polish emigrants. Increasing respect and knowledge about Poland was observed. Poland was on the lips of every citizen of the world. Poland was emerging from a provincial country to a respected and welcomed country on the international arena. In the same way, the Polish community and Poles living abroad gained self-confidence and felt like worthy emigrants and inhabitants of their country of residence. Thanks to John Paul II, they became respected and respected citizens of the world.
My husband, a first-generation American and Pole, born and educated in Chicago, a renowned lawyer, has often said how many times he heard “Dumb Poles” in the USA – a stupid Pole. Every Polish emigrant has encountered similar invective somewhere. On the day of Karol Wojtyła’s election as Pope, offensive words towards Poles living outside Poland ended.
John Paul II freed the Polish diaspora from thinking that the ideal of life in a new socio-national environment is total assimilation and the complete similarity of the emigrant to the native, at the cost of partial renunciation of one’s own culture. He showed us the path of the proper process of slow adaptation, which is called integration. Here is what John Paul II said on this subject:
“The concept of integration means that an emigrant enters the life of the country that welcomed him on various levels of life (professional, cultural and civic, etc.), acquires all the rights and fulfills the related obligations while maintaining the various values of the native culture”.
Thanks to our compatriot Pope John Paul II, Polonia is no longer ashamed of its roots and origins. The Polish community has acquired a new attitude towards its own cultural heritage, which is of decisive importance for its sense of self-dignity. John Paul II spoke to the Polish community in 1986 in Melbourne, Australia:
These words are so timely. Today, when in retrospect we see how great the wave of emigration from Poland was between 2007 and 2015, especially to Great Britain, Ireland and Sweden, we have tangible proof that this emigration contributed a lot of good to the life of their new country, without losing their faith and national identity. Many Polish organizations and Polish schools, among others, were established. And Polish workers in various professions have become valued employees in their country of residence.
The Pope showed us the path to the success of well-managed emigration, that is, to living life with dignity. Everything related to Polish culture takes place in the family home. However, school, studies and professional life are related to the culture of the country of residence. John Paul II explained that the bond with the country of one’s fathers and the country of residence takes place at the cultural level.
The Polish community is grateful for all the Pope’s speeches in which he touched on the issue of Poland’s centuries-old history. He talked about the great contribution of Poles to World Wars I and II, which he assessed as the work of world regeneration. He drew attention to the changes in the face of Europe and the special role of Poland in this respect. John Paul II was the best and greatest animator of Poland’s good image in the world, and for this the Polish community is very grateful to him, because he made us very proud of being a Polish emigrant with the awareness of our Polish roots.
One of the most recognizable dimensions of John Paul II’s pontificate was the way he exercised the papacy and the opening of the Church to direct contact with an ordinary, simple man. It was a pontificate that changed the face of the Catholic Church, European geopolitics, especially Poland and Central and Eastern Europe, and the global Polish community.
It was a pontificate that changed the image of a Pole as an emigrant, regardless of his country of residence. It was a pontificate that took the Vatican to wherever people could not come to it. In our Polish homes we enjoyed the daily presence of our Polish Pope.
Thanks to John Paul II, Poland and the Polish diaspora became closer and better understood in the world. It was thanks to the Pope that many people learned that there is such a country as Poland and what the word Polonia means.
Elizabeth Blania Kacprzyk
Founder and President
POLKA International-Międzynarodowa Asocjacja Polskich Kobiet
Paper presented on November 4, 2023 during the conference “Called to serve in a foreign land” in Wrocław.