The Pope We Never Knew
When Karol Wojtyla stepped out on the Vatican balcony on October 16, 1978, as the new Pope John Paul II, waving to the crowds in St. Peter's Square on the first day of his auspicious papacy, the person preaching for him in his home pulpit back in Krakow, Poland, was none other than Billy Graham. Behind that fact is a surprising story of the late pope's personal involvement with American evangelicals. With his passing, it is time to tell that story.
In the mid-1970s, American mission organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association began taking the gospel behind the Iron Curtain to Eastern Europe. After Graham's first "communist" crusade in Hungary in 1977, he was invited to the predominately Catholic country of Poland by the tiny Protestant community there, which amounted to less than 1 percent of the population. Just as in his 1957 New York City crusade, Graham wanted to work with as many Catholics as possible.
Initially, the Polish Catholic church rebuffed him. Wojtyla was the exception, giving Graham the invitation he needed for his crusade in a country where evangelicalism was considered cultic. The two men made plans to meet for tea, but by the time Graham arrived, Wojtyla had been summoned to Rome. At the time, the man who would be pope was already overseeing a radical partnership between a Polish Catholic youth renewal movement popularly known as Oasis and the American evangelical ministry Campus Crusade for Christ.
Oasis founder and close Wojtyla friend Father Franciszek Blachnicki had a conversion experience in a Nazi prison and built the Oasis movement to help Polish youth living under communism discover the same living faith he had found. At the heart of Oasis were its annual youth retreats in the Polish mountains using the outdoor experiences of scoutingbonfires, hiking, singingas spiritual renewal exercises structured around the mysteries of the rosary.
Every summer thousands of Oasis pilgrims inundated villages throughout the Tatry Mountains. To outwit communist restrictions on mass organizations, they rented barns to sleep in and cooked outdoors. In each village a leader would "spontaneously" organize the retreat activities using the Oasis program. Not surprisingly, Wojtylaalways the youth enthusiastbecame one of Oasis's most committed patrons, visiting its retreats each year.
Wojtyla saw the power of Oasis for renewing the church through spiritual mobilization in its fight against communism. Oasis alumni took vows to live ethical lifestyles of spiritual dissent in the face of a hostile communist system. By December 1983 more than 300,000 Poles had graduated the Oasis experience, including 40 percent of all new priests.
After celebrating Mass with 700 Oasis pilgrims one afternoon on a mountain peak in August 1972, Cardinal Wojtyla told them, "I look at you from the perspective of the struggle taking place in our country, a struggle for a way of life, for a system of values. I think that during the Oasis retreat, each of you can create an Oasis within yourself before returning to the desert which surrounds us for then the desert would no longer be dangerous."
One Oasis attendee in 1975 was Joe Losiak, a Polish American exchange student from Chicago studying in Krakow. He approached Blachnicki and told him how he too had come to a personal Christian faith through a similar youth movement in the United States, called Campus Crusade for Christ.
Losiak had come to Poland after hearing a challenge by Crusade founder Bill Bright to "go as students to a foreign university and start a ministry." Excited by his "Godstock" experience in the Cotton Bowl at Explo '72 with 80,000 other Crusade students, Losiak left for Poland. He soon reported back to Campus Crusade that there was a dynamic Catholic youth movement in Poland that emphasized a personal encounter with Christ and was looking for contact with like-minded Western groups.