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Cardinal who defied communism beatified in Poland

Asian Church has much to learn from Blessed Stefan Wyszynski’s leadership blending political strategies with pastoral plans

Cardinal who defied communism beatified in Poland

A monument in the courtyard of the metropolitan curia in Lublin commemorating Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski who was beatified in Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 12. (Photo: AFP)

The beatification of Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski on Sept 12 reminded Catholics worldwide of the Church’s ordeal under the repressive communist rule in Eastern Europe. It took place at a time of dwarfing church attendance and clerical abuse scandals in the Polish Church.

Blessed Wyszynski’s leadership, heading the Archdiocese of Warsaw-Gniezno from 1948 until his death on May 28, 1981, combined political game plans with pastoral lessons to guide the Church under hostile conditions put in place by authoritarian regimes.

Cardinal Wyszynski criticized the communist government in Poland but at the same time compelled its rulers to deal with him on his own terms.

Church historians say his dual strategy helped the Polish Church became Eastern Europe’s strongest entity and paved the way for the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla a Pope John Paul II, who was also a protégé of Blessed Wyszynski. Pope John Paul II was canonized in 2014. 

Blessed Wyszyński was born on Aug. 3, 1901. At the age of nine, he lost his mother like St. John Paul. He attended a primary school taught in Russian, which later helped him read clandestine documents from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

He was ordained a priest in 1924, when he turned 23, and became bishop of Lublin on March 4, 1946, at the age of 45.

As the primate of Poland, he steered the Church for 33 years. The miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Wyszyński, who died of abdominal cancer, involved the healing of a 19-year-old woman with thyroid cancer.

In 1950, then an archbishop, Blessed Wyszynski struck the first deal with the communist government which gave institutional protection to Church in return for respecting communist state authorities.

The deal fell through swiftly and Blessed Wyszynski was arrested for three years with hundreds of priests for his refusal to bend to the totalitarian regime in 1953, nine months after being named a cardinal.

The “Primate of the Millennium” entered into another pact with the new communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka who sought the cardinal’s help to quell public unrest. The treaty allowed freer Church appointments and 10 seats for Catholics in Poland’s state assembly.

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His resistance to communism is credited for the election of St. Pope John Paul II in 1978, and the toppling of the communist government in Poland in 1989.

Blessed Wyszyński’s devotion to the Virgin Mary inspired St. John Paul II who attributed his election to Blessed Wyszynski’s unwavering faith, “which did not retreat before prison and suffering.”

Cardinal Wyszyński died shortly after the failed assassination bid on St. John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Causes of Saints, observed at the beatification Mass held at the Temple of Divine Providence in capital Warsaw on Sept. 12 that Blessed Wyszynski defied an ideology, which “dehumanized and led people away from the fullness of faith.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who placed a wreath at the cardinal’s tomb, hailed his “great services” to the nation. A Sept. 10 senate resolution praised Blessed Wyszynski as a “great statesman,” who withstood “persecution, violence, rapine and injustice.”

The cardinal’s nearly three decades of conflict with the communist regime was followed by a partnership with the secular regime that succeeded it. The polish people looked forward to him as a towering statesman and a dedicated church leader at the same time.

The beatification ceremony took place in Poland, a predominantly Catholic European Union nation currently, as the Polish Church is facing a serious credibility crisis.

The Vatican has punished 10 Polish bishops and archbishops over reported cover-ups of clerical abuse of minors and has started probes under the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi (You are the light of the world), issued by Pope Francis in 2019.

In July, the government committee on pedophilia said that nearly a third of the 345 child sexual abuse cases committed between 2017 and 2020 involved polish priests. In its report in June, the Polish Church said it received 368 clerical sexual allegations from July 2018 to the end of 2020.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, a retired archbishop of Krakow who served as the Polish pope's secretary for 39 years, was named as accused of covering up sexual abuse complaints in a November 2020 TVN-24 documentary.

A retired Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz was barred from using Episcopal insignia and denied cathedral burial after he figured in an abuse case. The 97-year-old cardinal died in November 2020, two weeks after the ban came into force.

Clerical abuse and the culture of concealment have distanced many Catholic Poles away from the Church. According to the Polish bishops’ conference, 36.9 percent of the country’s Catholics attended Sunday Masses in 2019 compared with 38.2 percent in the previous year.

The number of people attending Sunday Mass recorded a 1.3 percent decline in 2019 compared with the previous year.

Led by China and India, minorities in their respective Asian nations are currently perceived as a threat and sweeping laws are pieced together to tame them.

The Asian Church has a few tips to learn from Blessed Wyszynski’s leadership, blending political strategies with pastoral plans, as many of its nations are showing an eagerness to tilt towards totalitarian regimes where legal religious discriminations prevail.

Forty years ago, a banner at the funeral procession of the towering figure of 20th-century Polish Catholicism read, “God gives us such a father and shepherd once in a thousand years.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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