In Eastern Europe, where both world wars began, the end of the Cold War began on Oct. 16, 1978, with a puff of white smoke, in Western Europe. It wafted over one of Europe's grandest public spaces, over Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, over statues of the saints atop Bernini's curving colonnade that embraces visitors to Vatican City. Ten years later, when the fuse that Polish workers had lit in a Gdansk shipyard had ignited the explosion that leveled the Berlin Wall, it was clear that one of the most consequential people of the 20th century's second half was a Pole who lived in Rome, governing a city-state of 109 acres.
Our age celebrates the watery toleration preached by people for whom ``judgmental'' is an epithet denoting an intolerable moral confidence. John Paul II bristled with judgments, including this: The inevitability of progress is a myth, hence the certainty that mankind is wiser today than yesterday is chimeric.
Secular Europe is, however, wiser because of a man who worked at an altar. Europeans have been plied and belabored by various historicisms purporting to show that individuals are nullities governed by vast impersonal forces. Beginning in 1978, Europeans saw one man seize history by the lapels and shake it.
One of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown detective stories includes this passage: ``'I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humor, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.' 'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown.''
A poet made the same point: ``A flame rescued from dry wood has no weight in its luminous flight yet lifts the heavy lid of night.'' The poet became John Paul II.