Cardinal Wyszyński: Primate of the Millennium

The modern world needs to be reminded of the great truth that men are called for eternal life and that their life does not end here, on earth. Our faith in eternal life has a very important meaning: it teaches us to respect men. We must always remember that man is the most important, most precious, most splendid work of God. — Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński (May 24, 1964)

On October 3, 2019, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints officially approved a miracle by Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński’s intercession. This was his final hurdle on the road to beatification. The Polish primate was a dear friend of Pope Saint John Paul II, who led Poland during Communist persecution.

His beatification in June was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Vatican sources tell me that the new date of the beatification will be announced imminently.

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Cardinal Wyszyński (1901-1981) was the soul of the Polish nation. He was a father of the Fatherland and the primate of the millennium. He was a friend and mentor to John Paul II. A strict and unshakable man of powerful spirituality, he helped to save the Church—and the nation—during the period of Soviet occupation. He defended Christians from the persecutions by the Communist government. He was arguably one of the key figures in Poland’s 20th-century history.

Stefan Wyszyński was born in the village of Zuzela in Russian-occupied Poland in 1901. His father, an organist of the local parish, had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa. The father’s devotion passed on to his son; his faith, too, kept him strong.

Stefan’s trials commenced when he was still a child. He lost his mother in early childhood and experienced persecutions during the period of “russification.” His family suffered from chronic poverty. At various points in his boyhood, he fell ill with both tuberculosis and typhus.

In 1924, at the age of 23, Stefan was ordained to the holy priesthood. Next, he undertook his studies in canon law at the Catholic University in Lublin. In every location he served as a parish priest, he took extra steps to minister to the youth, the poor, and the handicapped. He was active in Catholic Action and taught in “workers’ universities” as well as assisting Christian trade unions. Early on, Wyszyński became involved in the anti-Communist struggle, lecturing and publishing on Red Menace already in the early 1930s.

The Second World War and its aftermath was Father Wyszyński’s trial by fire. He witnessed enormous suffering while he served as a military chaplain, tending to the wounded and assisting the dying during the Warsaw Rising against the Germans in 1944. Simultaneously, he led a clandestine female youth group and ministered to the blind. Under such difficult conditions, Father Wyszyński matured into his Polishness and his priesthood; patriotism and Catholicism became inexorably entwined in his mission.

What was forged during the war, remained as steel afterwards. In 1946, he became the Bishop of Lublin. In 1948, he was appointed Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw and Primate of Poland. Four years later, Pius XII named him to the Sacred College, but Archbishop (now Cardinal) Wyszyński was prevented from traveling to Rome.

The Polish primate’s strength, faith, and diplomacy emerged during the fierce repression by the Communist government against the Polish Church in the early 1950s. Priests and religious were imprisoned without a trial. Church property was confiscated, and Catholic organizations dissolved, including schools, hospitals, and charities. The Reds demanded that the Catholic Church and its leaders bend to Moscow’s will and kowtow to Stalin. The Communists wanted to use the hierarchy to enslave the flock. Cardinal Wyszyński refused. More repressions followed.

Once this brutal attack on the Church reached its zenith, Cardinal Wyszyński wrote a letter, which was signed by all the bishops, to the Communist authorities:

We affirm that the aforementioned decree cannot be recognized by us as legitimate and valid, since it is contrary to the [Polish] Constitutions, and the laws of God and the Church… We will follow the apostolic voice of our vocation and priestly conscience; we will go with inner peace, with the awareness that we have not given reason for persecution and that the suffering that we will endure will not be for any other cause than that of Christ and his Church. We cannot sacrifice God’s things on the altar of Caesar! Non possumus!

The letter clarified the position of the Polish episcopate so the Communists realized that they could take control of the country, but not of the Catholic Church. On the night of September 25, 1953, Cardinal Wyszyński was arrested and taken to prison. The imprisonment lasted three years.

In October 1956, he was released because the Communists needed his help. Intra-party struggles brought back from oblivion a disgraced leader, Władysław Gomułka. Now with the Polish nation in turmoil, Gomułka needed Cardinal Wyszyński to stem the swelling tide of anti-Communism. As a possibility of an anti-Red rising loomed large, the Red Army prepared to invade Poland.

On October 28, 1956, the Wyszyński returned to Warsaw, where he calmed the waters. His magisterial authority reverberated throughout the nation. The hot heads relented. No uprising broke out, unlike in poor Hungary. Seeing that Poland stepped down from the brink, the Soviets acquiesced in Gomułka’s rise.

Cardinal Wyszyński immediately named his price. On December 8, he concluded an agreement with the Communist government. Gomułka accepted all the cardinal’s conditions. The government now guarantied freedom of worship, separation of State and the Church, including non-interference in the affairs of the latter by the former. The regime also confirmed that the Communist decree usurping the right to the nomination of bishops was canceled.

Wyszyński’s compromise defused a crisis that might have culminated in Soviet invasion and yet more Red Terror. The agreement was continued under Gomułka’s successor Edward Gierek in the 1970s. However, by that time, the Cardinal (and the Church he led) waxed in moral authority—to the great detriment of the Communist party.

His diplomatic skills were legendary. So, too, was his evolutionary conservatism. He was very skeptical of the novelties of Vatican II; he thought them pernicious for the unity of the Church, in particular the faithful suffering under communism. Yet he was able to mitigate the damage of the Council as its dictates spread to Poland. Cardinal Wyszyński balanced the Church reforms imposed from abroad with the requirements of survival under the Soviet occupation by proxy.

Each time a political crisis broke out in Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński would step into the fray in a regal way. In 1968 he defended students after mass university unrest, riots, and expulsions after the kids rebelled against Communist-led, anti-Semitic purge in the party and state apparatus. The Primate also shielded the victims of the anti-Jewish campaign.

In the 1970s, he spoke out in support of rebellious workers of the Baltic Sea coast. Later, he quietly aided the victims of the strikes of 1976. He backed the human rights movement, in particular the Movement for the Defense of Human and Civil Rights in Poland, rather than the Committee to Defend Workers, which he viewed as infiltrated by post-Stalinists and Trotskyites.

Similarly, Wyszynski prayed for the rank-and-file of “Solidarity,” when the movement erupted on Poland’s scene in August 1980. Yet he was very weary of the independent union’s firebrands. He did not wish to provoke a Soviet invasion, and he looked askance at the undue influence of leftist intellectuals in the councils of the union’s leadership. However, the Primate wholeheartedly supported the more conservative “Rural Solidarity.”

In all this he was essentially of one mind with his one-time protegee, Karol Wojtyła, who now reigned as Pope John Paul II. In the 1960s and later, because of Cardinal Wyszyński’s austerity and conservatism, the Communist secret police deluded itself that the smiley and easy-going Archbishop Wojtyła of Krakow could be pitted against the severe Primate. They were wrong.

In October 1978, then-Cardinal Wojtyła was elected Pope. According to the Pontiff’s own words,

When, on the day of October 16, 1 the conclave of cardinals chose John Paul II, the Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński told me: “The task of the new pope will be to introduce the Church into the Third Millennium.” I do not know if I am repeating the phrase exactly, but at least such was the sense of what I heard then. It was said by the Man who has passed into history as the Primate of the Millennium. A great primate. I was witness to the mission, to his total entrusting of himself to his struggles, to his victory.

Wojtyła would defer to Wyszyński even after the latter’s death.

It was a great joy for Cardinal Wyszynski to see his close friend and once young protégée as the successor of Saint Peter in Rome. Wojtyla was always next to Wyszynski, always by his side, always transparently loyal, always full of respect, and always attentive. He was absolutely faithful to the Primate, and always demonstrated in a clear way that they were united and followed the same line of action. The two cardinals had found a way of dividing up their roles but always acted together. According to John Paul’s personal secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz,

The primate set the direction, the overall strategy, while Wojtyła articulated the theory behind it. Wyszynski devoted himself completely to the Church and the Polish social and political situation; Wojtyła partly because he was younger and better at foreign languages, visited the Polish communities abroad.

In taking the name of John Paul II (which Wyszyński had urged him to adopt, in memory of the deceased Pope and out of respect for the Italian people, who had loved John Paul I), Wojtyła demonstrated his intention to continue with the council’s reforms. John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 was a dream come true to Cardinal Wyszyński as well. Gaude Mater Polonia! Wyszyński exclaimed to his friend: “Rejoice, oh Mother Poland!”

Cardinal Wyszyński spent the last two years of his life continuing to fight the Communist regime. He became a mediator between the regime and Solidarity. He met Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the ruling Polish United Worker’s Party, who asked for the Cardinal’s help in preventing strikes along the Baltic coast. Unfortunately for Gierek, he didn’t listen to Wyszyński’s advice, and strikes spread out all over the country.

Cardinal Wyszyński also negotiated with General Wojciech Jaruzelski in an effort to stabilize the situation in Poland. In the meantime, he supported Solidarity and met with its leader, Lech Wałęsa, and other representatives of the opposition. After years of battling the Communist government, Cardinal Wyszyński used his enormous influence to mediate between the authorities and Solidarity. Thanks to his efforts, Solidarity was officially registered as a legal union on April 17, 1981.

It was his last service to his beloved country. On May 28, 1981, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński died at 79. For the Poles it was a “Black May.” John Paul II narrowly survived an assassin’s bullet. Just over a month earlier Ronald Reagan (hugely popular in Poland) was also shot; he, too, barely escaped with his life.

Cardinal Wyszyński was an unquestionable leader of the Polish nation in opposition to the Communistic regime. As Father Raymond de Souza noted, “Without the space that Cardinal Wyszyński created, it would not have been possible for Cardinal Wojtyła to emerge and, as the first Polish pope, to vanquish the Soviet empire.”

Stefan Wyszyński, ora pro nobis.


  • Monika Jablonska

    Monika Jablonska is an entrepreneur and a lawyer, philanthropist, consultant and business executive with expertise in international business transactions and NGOs. Currently, Ms. Jablonska works on her Ph.D thesis in political science. She is the author of Wind from Heaven: John Paul II, The Poet Who Became Pope (Angelico Press, 2017). She writes for various magazine and newspapers in the United States and Europe.

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