Three Polish nuns, wearing traditional robes and habits, stand in a circle, studying their train schedule.  Little sleep and the absence of coffee on the night train from Berlin contribute to my slow reasoning.  “Can you direct me to the platform for Cze? stochowa?” I inquire.  The eldest nun points to a platform, and then to her watch.  They, too, are on pilgrimage to the shrine at Jasna Góra (Shining Mountain).  A believer might conclude that Providence allowed a lost pilgrim to cross their path.  Today, however, most would say that it was coincidence, good fortune, or luck.

I have just returned from a trip to Berlin, where I was reminded that the conservative movement has its own shrines and relics commemorating the former Soviet Union’s collapse.  These include the Ministerium fur Statessicherheit (the ex-headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police); the last section of the Berlin Wall on the Bernauer Strasse; and the shuttered embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one block off the Unter den Linden, all in the former German Democratic Republic.  A relic—Lenin’s visage—is still visible on the latter’s exterior.  Another, Lenin’s death mask, can be seen on a desk in ex-Stasi chief Erich Mielke’s office, along with a portrait of the late chekist Felix Dzerzhinsky.  While these are not on the scale of the secular shrine in Moscow where the ultimate Soviet relic—Lenin’s embalmed corpse—remains on public display 80 years after his death, these secular curiosities of East and West share one characteristic: Christianity is not a central theme.  A pilgrim will have an easier time finding a Lenin medallion near these shrines than one commemorating a saint.  Certainly, there are a few reminders of the Marxist-Leninist persecution of Christians, such as Berlin’s rebuilt Protestant Chapel of Reconciliation.  The chapel, near the infamous “death zone” (the Wall), features a superb Last Supper woodcarving defaced (save for Judas Iscariot’s face) by communists.

The conflict between Marxism and the Church founded by Jesus Christ gripped Central and Eastern Europe for most of the 20th century.  Yet the drama is presented, in the secular East and West, as a struggle between economic systems or political regimes, not between God and mammon.  Washington does not remind the world of the crucial role the Christian Faith played in Marxism’s collapse, because it is a secular regime.  Conventional conservative wisdom in the United States attributes the Soviet Union’s collapse to the Reagan military buildup, the Soviet economy’s internal economic contradictions, or a combination of both factors.  Yet ignoring traditional Christianity’s resilience against social systems that seek to conquer does not change history.  The role that Christian religious faith played in Marxism’s collapse, and Christianity’s resistance to militant Islam in Europe, are highly relevant, even to a secular regime where conflict is measured in election cycles, not centuries.  One conflict, from Marx’s key early writings to the Soviet Union’s collapse, was concluded in less than two centuries.  The other, dating to the Battle of Tours (October 10, A.D. 732) is in its second millennium.  History suggests that secular systems based on such abstractions as “the materialist forces of history,” “the market,” and “global democracy” are at a disadvantage in long struggles with aggressive religious systems.

The Marian shrine at Cze?stochowa, Poland, about 450 kilometers southeast of Berlin, is Christian, not secular, and it provides insights into both conflicts.  Traveling there by train, you clearly see Poland’s Catholic heritage—large churches, not Golden Arches.  You can also see her Marxist past.  The industrial city of Katowice was briefly renamed Stalinogród in the mid-1950’s.  There is Nowa Huta, Stalin’s model industrial city built to rebuke Krakow, Poland’s cultural center.  Nowa Huta was the flashpoint of a two-decade struggle between the Church and authorities over a church for workers.  The communist government issued a building permit in 1958 but withdrew it four years later.  Karol Wojtyla, Krakow’s auxiliary bishop and later her cardinal, persisted with other priests in seeking a permit.  Workers erected crosses that were torn down by authorities.  Wojtyla and other priests held Mass in a field.  The communists finally relented, and the Ark Church was completed in 1977.  Ironically, Stalin’s model city was one of the key centers of Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union.  The other was Gdansk, the Baltic port.

It starts to rain as the three nuns and I exit the Cze? stochowa train station.  At first, it drizzles, and then the sky opens in a downpour.  We trudge ahead through puddles.  The nuns open their umbrellas and beckon me to follow, my luggage slung over a shoulder.  I am grateful for the kindness of strangers.  Near the orphanage, the rain ceases.  I tell the three nuns “Thank you” and bid them farewell.  The nuns (Little Sisters of the Immaculate Conception) who operate the orphanage are grateful for the gift I have brought them—clothes from a mutual friend who has traveled in the socialist bloc.  I am plied with instant coffee and toast with jam.  Outside, the sun begins to peer through the clouds.

Jasna Góra is a short distance away.  The religious shrine is visited annually by four-to-five million Christian pilgrims; only Vatican City and Lourdes receive more.  The shrine’s treasure is the icon of the Black Madonna with Christ Child, revered by the two churches that share seven Sacraments.  Legend suggests Saint Luke painted the icon, which has survived trials by fire and sword and has been protected by Pauline monks since the 14th century.  The Church’s use of pilgrimages to Jasna Góra strengthened the will of Polish Catholics to resist the Marxist-Leninist regime.  Numbering in the millions, the pilgrimages served as the key forum in which to speak openly without fear of arrest or imprisonment under communist rule.  Wojtyla himself recognized the shrine’s role shortly after his election as Pope John Paul II—the first Slavic pope—in 1978.  Speaking in Polish during his inaugural Mass, the Pope said, “My dear fellow countrymen . . . I ask you: be with me at Jasna Góra and everywhere.  Do not cease to be with the Pope who prays with the words of the poet, ‘Mother of God, you who defend bright Cze? stochowa . . . ’”  The Pope declared in a radio address, “There would not have been this Polish Pope upon St. Peter’s Capitol without Jasna Góra.”  Indeed, the Soviet Union might not have collapsed without the shrine.  Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, in a 1992 interview in the Italian daily La Stampa, credited religion with a greater role in the Soviet collapse than any Beltway analyst preoccupied with “global democracy.”

Pilgrims pray fervently before the Black Madonna on the day of my visit.  I hear Russian and Ukrainian spoken along with Polish.  Some pray while shuffling on their knees.  Others are crying.  Perhaps this is the universal Christianity, uniting East and West at Jasna Góra, envisioned by Russian Vladimir Sergeyevich Soloviev (1853-1900), a theologian and philosopher whose books have influenced John Paul II.

Jasna Góra played an important role in the conflict between Islam and Christianity.  Muslim armies seeking to conquer Europe have been defeated in three crucial battles: Tours, Lepanto (October 7, 1571), and Vienna (September 12, 1683).  On these fields, aggressive Muslim hordes were defeated by defensive Christian armies.  Charles Martel, Don John, and Polish King Jan Sobieski III led successful battles for God and homeland.

During my visit, I saw four unmarked frescoes depicting Sobieski’s visits to Jasna Góra.  Sobieski led the Slavic and German army that defeated the Ottomans at Vienna and made pilgrimages to Jasna Góra before and after the battle.  His message to Pope Innocent XI after the victory read simply: “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit.”  A guidebook does not mention the frescoes, but a French priest confirmed their existence for me.  In a nearby room, I found a vivid reminder of the French adage Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: a 17th-century painting depicting a massacre of Slavic religious put to the sword by the ancestors of today’s Muslim terrorists.