Going to a City Without God? John Paul II’s Opening “New Evangelization” Move

St. John Paul II first used the term “new evangelization” during a dramatic visit to Poland in 1979.1

Picture the scene. It’s his first time as pope to return to his native country of Poland, still under the atheistic regime of the communists. He goes to the modern suburb of Krakow called Nowa Huta, which represents the ideal communist city—a city without God. In Polish, Nowa Huta means “new steelworks.” The city is designed to be the perfect industrial metropolis, featuring massive apartment blocks for 40,000 people and steel factories five times larger than those in the historic center of Krakow.

For the communists, Nowa Huta pointed to a new Poland and would erase, they hoped, the memory of the country’s rich Catholic history. It was a sociological experiment—constructing an entire modern town that celebrated work and promised a better life, but a life without religion. It was the first town in the history of Poland built intentionally without a church, and the authorities did all they could to keep it that way.

But ever since he was made an auxiliary bishop in Krakow, Karol Wojtyla fought against this atheistic ideology, choosing Nowa Huta as a focal point in the struggle for Poland’s soul. Every year, starting in 1959, he celebrated a Christmas midnight Mass for the workers in an open field there. He told the people that one day a church would be built in Nowa Huta despite the authorities’ restrictions on religious freedom.

In 1960, he defended workers who erected a cross as a reminder of their missing church. When the authorities threatened to tear it down, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The government asked the young auxiliary bishop to tell his people to stop rioting. Wojtlya complied with their request and asked the people to maintain peace. But, much to the chagrin of the communist leaders, he also told the people there would be no reason for protest in the future because the cross would not be removed again! Then he told the government leaders that the only way to ensure peace in Nowa Huta would be to build a church for its people.2

After years of Wojtyla’s persistence, the government eventually yielded and granted permission for a church, which Wojtyla consecrated it in 1977; by that time, he had become the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. The church’s consecration represented a victorious moment in the struggle for faith in communist Poland. At the church’s dedication, Cardinal Wojtyla noted how the presence of a Catholic church in the supposedly religion-less Nowa Huta clearly signified the Polish people’s true, unforgotten Christian identity. “This city is not a city of people who belong to no one . . . this is a city of the Children of God [and] this temple was needed so that this could be expressed, [so] that it could be emphasized. . . . ”3 Two years later, Karol Wojtyla returned to Communist Poland for the first time as Pope John Paul II. During his historic nine-day visit, he went back to the Nowa Huta area and celebrated Mass at a Cistercian abbey on the outskirts of the town. It was in the homily for this Mass that he used the expression “new evangelization” for the first time.

To begin, the pope recalled how this particular abbey housed a relic of the true cross of Christ, a point of Christian pilgrimage for many centuries. Such a treasure, he said, was made possible by the evangelization of Poland long ago, when crosses were erected throughout the land to show that the Gospel had been lovingly welcomed by the people. Pope John Paul II pointed to the cross, therefore, as a sign of the first evangelization of the Polish people.

Where the cross is raised, there is the sign that evangelization has begun. Once our fathers raised the cross in various places in the land of Poland as a sign that the Gospel had arrived there, that there had been a beginning of the evangelization that was to continue without break until today.4

But then he recalled how the almost two-decade struggle to build a church in Nowa Huta also involved a cross—the cross which the steel workers “raised as a sign of their will to build a new church.” In the face of the communists’ atheistic attempt to remove religion from Polish life, the modern cross of Nowa Huta signified a new period of evangelization for the Polish people.

[In] these new times, these new conditions of life, the Gospel is again being proclaimed. A new evangelization has begun, as if it were a new proclamation, even if in reality it is the same as ever. The cross stands high over the revolving world.5 (emphasis added)

John Paul II’s first use of the expression “new evangelization” focused on the evangelization of Poland in particular. But it sheds much light on what John Paul meant when he later called for a new evangelization in the rest of the world. As the Church in Poland faced the forces of atheistic communism, so also much of the Church around the world faces new ideologies and ways of life that undermine faith—even in countries that were previously marked by the cross of Christ. In some cases, it might involve government authorities destroying churches, arresting priests, outlawing religion or, as was the case in Nowa Huta, tearing down crosses.

But in other settings, a culture of consumerism and incessant entertainment dull the spiritual life and stifle the pursuit of virtuous living; the pervading influence of secularism keeps people from thinking much about God in their daily lives; and the anything-goes mentality of moral relativism leaves people without an ethical compass for their choices.

In the last century, Poland and other communist countries haven’t been the only places where crosses and traditional Christian values are threatened. That happens in Western cultures, too. Perhaps the only difference is that the people of Nowa Huta fought harder to keep their Christian identity than many of us do in the West. The Polish at least knew that the communist regime threatened to their well-being. But many today don’t see the rise of secularism, relativism, and materialism as something that harms the human family. Many welcome it.

That’s why modern secular countries in the West need a “new evangelization” just as much as Poland did under the communists. These cultures may be filled with people who have heard of Jesus and the Catholic Church, people who might be baptized and people who might even attend Mass, but as John Paul II notes, many of them live their lives “far removed from the Gospel.”6 They are shaped more by the secular world around them than they are by the Gospel message. A new evangelization is needed to face this new situation.

Hence, it is fitting that John Paul II later took this idea of a “new evangelization,” first articulated in Poland, and applied it to the Church’s mission in the rest of the modern world. Throughout his pontificate, he called on the Church to bring a new evangelization “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith or even no longer recognize themselves as members of the Church” (Redemptoris Missio, no. 33). The splendor of the Gospel message must be re-proposed in new ways that attract those who have rejected or brushed aside the faith. St. John Paul II made this “supreme duty” a most urgent priority for the Church, saying “The moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a new evangelization.”

1 John Paul II, homily at the Shrine of the Holy Cross in Mogila, Poland 9 June 1979. I am grateful to my colleague at the Augustine Institute, Professor Doug Bushman, for this insight. See also Rino Fisichella, The New Evangelization: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference (Victoria, Australia: Freedom Publishing, 2012).

2 George Weigel, The End and the Beginning (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 59.

3 Ibid., 55.

4 John Paul II, homily at the Shrine of the Holy Cross in Mogila, Poland 9 June 1979. www.vatican.va

5 Ibid.

6 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media), no. 33. The Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland / Wikimedia Commons Interior of the Church of Our Lady the Queen of Poland in Nowa Huta.