In the summer of 1991 I was present among the 1 million pilgrims who had converged on the Polish city of Czestochowa for the celebration of World Youth Day with Pope John Paul II. The feast for the World Youth Day Mass with the Pope was the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, August 15th.
A most remarkable feature of that World Youth Day was that it was the first of these biennial events after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Communist dictatorships in the “iron-curtain” countries of central and eastern Europe, so there were youth delegations from all of these countries there in significant numbers, identified in the crowds by their national flags and their hand-made banners. I remember my surprise at finding myself next to two Soviet Russian girls in the throng of people greeting the Pope upon his arrival to the city, August 14th. They had very limited English and I had no Russian, but they knew enough to make themselves understood. Communism had done all it could (with massive violence) to stamp out religion, especially Christianity…and here the youth of the Communist societies had come to cheer the Pope, looking to the Gospel of Jesus and not to Marx and Lenin for their inspiration.
One of my most cherished memories is of the all-night vigil that was kept around the monastery of Jasna Gora. The night was overcast and slightly foggy, so it was difficult to see where you were going and exactly what were the surroundings. I remember marching in silence
with the procession of people trying to get closer to the shrine. It was between two and three in the morning of August the 15th.
The number of people who had come to Czestochowa had vastly exceeded both the authorities’ expectations as well as the city’s
capacity to hold them. The open space around the shrine, the roads leading to it, as well as the wooded park-space was jammed with people long before dawn. Yet, despite the crowd there was no disorder. Everything was quiet and hushed. Somewhere in the dark mist could be heard the singing of a Latin refrain:
Maria regina mundi,
Maria regina coeli,
Tibi assumpta, tibi assumpta
(Mary Queen of the world,
Mary Queen of heaven,
To thee assumed, to thee assumed
We keep vigil.)
Three days after the Pope’s triumphal visit to Czestochowa, the hard-line Communists within the Soviet military staged a coup d’état against the reformist leader Gorbachev, whom they placed under arrest. It looked as if all of the hopes for a peaceful, post-Cold War Europe had been misplaced. Tanks in the streets had shut down the popular aspirations for freedom from Communism as they had so many times before during the Cold War: Berlin, 1953, Hungary, 1956, Prague, 1968. But then, suddenly, the tables turned, the Communist hard-liners had to back down in the face of popular opposition, Gorbachev was released. The day that the coup d’état failed was August 22nd, 1991—the feast of the Queenship of Mary and the old feast of her Immaculate Heart.