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Emergence of John Paul II gave hope to political prisoners seeking religious freedom in Soviet Union

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St. John Paul II appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica following his election the evening of Oct. 16, 1978. Soviet political prisoners from various backgrounds begged St. John Paul II's help in secret messages after his election, according to a former inmate. (CNS photo/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Soviet political prisoners from various backgrounds begged 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 labor 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 labor 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.”

St. John Paul II embraces a young woman during the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.)

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 labor camp in early 1980, after spending 15 days in punishment cells for celebrating Easter.

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.”

“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,” said Marynovych, who later founded and directed Amnesty International in the Soviet Union.

“Suffering in Christ’s name is always an honor for Christians, and we bore our punishment with a clean spirit. But we realized 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, St. John Paul told Poland’s primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the former “church of silence” would now speak “with the voice of the pope.”

In a 1997 book, “Gift and Mystery,” St. John Paul 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 St. John Paul II’s birth at Wadowice May 18, 1920.

Marynovych said all religious practices were “strictly forbidden” in Soviet prisons and labor 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.”

“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,” said the former political prisoner, who later received awards for his work, including the 2014 Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.