Prague, 4 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II yesterday strongly backed the aspirations of Central European countries to membership in European, primarily Western, institutions.
Without specifically mentioning either the European Union (EU) or NATO, the Pope said at a private meeting with Presidents of seven countries of the region -- Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Roman Herzog of Germany, Arpad Goncz of Hungary, Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania, Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Michal Kovac of Slovakia and Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine -- that "Europeans should cooperate, and no country, even the weak one, should be left outside the communities that are now coming into being." Germany is the only country currently belonging to both the EU and NATO, while the remaining six are anxious to get in.
The Pope was quick to caution that, following decades of Soviet-centered, Communist domination, "the recovery of the right to self-determination and the growth of political and economic freedom are not sufficient to rebuild European unity" and emphasized that "what links us in Europe is the Christian roots, our common culture."
Europe was the theme of the fourth day of the Pope's visit to Poland. Besides the meeting with the Presidents, the Pope dealt with the subject in separate public addresses in the town of Gniezno, the historical seat of Polish Catholicism, and the city of Poznan, where he met with young people.
In Gniezno, he told a massive audience of more than 250,000 that Europe is still divided by an "invisible wall," created by lingering racial and religious prejudices as well as economic differences between countries. Efforts to remove of this wall, the Pope said, will pave the way to unity.
In Poznan, the Pope reminded the young crowd that "awareness of the past helps us to take our place in the line of generations" and appealed to the young to become involved in "improving the world."
The Pope arrived in Poland five days ago for an eleven-day visit. One of the main themes for the trip is to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Adalbert, a Czech missionary, who 1,000 years ago was active in Western Europe as well as in Hungary, Bohemia and Poland, before his death at the hands of Prussian pagans in the year 997. The Pope has presented St. Adalbert as the spiritual model, historically and culturally, linking various parts of Europe together.
Commenting on the Pope's pronouncements, Czech President Havel said at a press conference in Gniezno that the spiritual and moral legacy of St. Adalbert "is as valid today as it was 1,000 years ago." Hungarian President Goncz concurred, saying that "St. Adalbert's spirit is the reality of the new Central Europe" determined to join and integrate with the West.
Germany's President Herzog agreed, emphasizing that "what links us in Europe is the Christian roots, our common culture," while Lithuania's President Brazauskas added that "we all are searching for peace and cooperation on this continent."
The Pope's pronouncements have been popular with the public as well. John Paul II has attracted big crowds of hundred of thousands to his daily outdoor masses. His sermons have been enthusiastically received, testifying to his great popularity.
His visit has been basically pastoral, focused on spiritual themes. But it also has a major political significance in Poland, the country torn by different cross-currents and divided among diverse groups. The Pope holds overwhelming respect in Poland, and all politicians wait with considerable trepidation to hear what he says.
During the first four days of his visit, the Pope refrained from entering the political arena. But this is likely to end, particularly since the issue of abortion, regarded by the Pope as holding a major moral importance, looms large in internal Polish politics.
Last year, the current left-wing Parliament passed a liberalized abortion law. It was subsequently approved by the current post-Communist President Aleksander Kwasniewski. But last week, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the liberal aspects of the law were in conflict with the Constitution. The ruling has been seen by some observers as motivated by ideological, rather than legal considerations, while others have said that the tribunal might have exceeded its mandate and intruded into the legislative area by creating new legal rules.
Right-wing opposition parties and groups have opposed the liberalized law. So has the Catholic Church. But various public opinion polls have consistently showed that a majority of respondents support liberal laws.
The Pope has consistently condemned abortion as immoral. He is certain to restate this position during the visit. Indeed, it appears that he has already invoked the issue in a sermon delivered today in the town of Kalisz.
This is likely to heat up political divisiveness in the country, which is in the midst of political campaign for parliamentary elections scheduled for September. But, whether the Pope's pronouncements alone could determine the outcome of the contest is far from certain.