Poland’s Warrior for the Faith: Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński

On June 1st, 1961, the feast of Corpus Christi, the Cardinal Primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszyński stood at St. Anne’s Church in Warsaw, his archiepiscopal see.  The baroque and neoclassical-style church was still not fully rebuilt from Hitler’s systematic destruction visited on Warsaw for having dared to rise against his rule.  Outside the church, well over 100,000 men, women, and children had gathered to hear the Cardinal speak.  They crowded the square in front, where they were able to hear him on loudspeakers set up outdoors, despite a state prohibition on the practice.  The crowds, it was said, were larger than ever before for any gathering of that sort.  The day was hot, and the people had been standing for hours, but this was not the reason for the unusual tension in the air, in contrast to the normal festive atmosphere of the feast day.  Taking advantage of the recent abolition of the octave of Corpus Christi by the Vatican, Poland’s Communist authorities had banned religious processions on those days, despite the fact they were traditional in Poland.  They had even forbidden all morning processions on Corpus Christi itself, a ban which the Church and populace had ignored.

Although he spoke for only a few minutes, Wyszyński took the time to review and strengthen several of his major pastoral themes.   Building on traditional piety, he dedicated Warsaw to Our Lady of Częstochowa, the favored title of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Poland, thanks to the great pilgrimage to the shrine at Częstochowa.  The Polish bishops  had recently been encouraging a renewal of this traditional Marian devotion to encourage Catholic identity, including pilgrimages by members of different professions and social groups, and this despite harassment, or even violence from the state security apparatus.  The archbishop’s talk also sharply protested the state decision to forbid the traditional Corpus Christi processions.  He now used publically terms he had once used privately to protest his three-year imprisonment by the regime less than a decade before, at the height of Stalinism in Poland: his rights as a citizen were being violated.  The state was usurping a right he should have as Poland’s primate in a free society.   All the same, he urged prayers for the persecutors of the Church, and their intentions.  “With full hearts we forgive our enemies—we forgive the enemies of God.”  As again and again the crowd shouted back “we forgive,” even grown men broke down in tears.  Then, according to one press report, “the cardinal cut short the growing demonstration with a wave of his hand.”

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This incident, a relatively small one, stood toward the beginning what would prove a nearly decade long struggle between Wyszyński (1901-81) and the Communist State over things as basic as the right of the Church alone to define the contents of seminary and religious education, and the ability of sisters to teach it.  In this contest, the regime would use propaganda, law, control of education and the media, local ordinances, taxation, intimidation, harassment, and occasionally violence, to undermine the role of the Church in Polish society, and Wyszyński in particular.  Yet none of it worked, and the stature of Wyszyński and the Polish Church grew both at home and abroad.   He had won the virtue of courage not only from his own powers of self-command, but by hard trials.   Whipped by Imperial German authorities as a minor seminarian for joining an illegal Polish-language scouting troop, too ill to be ordained with his seminary class, and barely able to stand through his first Mass, marked for deportation to a concentration camp by Nazi authorities during WWII, forced to live in hiding, and serving as a chaplain to wounded members of the Polish underground during the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Uprising by the Nazis in 1944, he knew his share of trials even before facing the Communist order imposed on Poland by the Soviets after the war.

There is another facet of Wyszyński that is important to note alongside his fortitude: his generous and broad understanding which allowed him to negotiate with and engage the world when necessary and appropriate.  Still, this prudent moderation took nothing away from his passion for justice and the good of the Church and his country.

These traits can be seen, for instance, in his work with the Polish labor movement and poor as a priest in the interwar period.  On one hand, this involvement led him to call on those who had an abundance of possessions to be willing to sacrifice for the poor.  Along these lines, he also came out for the redistribution of property, arguing, rather like G. K. Chesterton, that it would strengthen rather than weaken the principle of private ownership, since it would give the poor a stake in the security of property.  Poland of the 1920s and 1930s, with many landless or marginal peasants, had a great need for creating such a stake.  When the Communists took control after World War II, this stand made it harder for the authorities to allege his indifference to the poor.  Moreover, his experience as a labor priest encouraged Wyszyński to take a close interest in Catholic Social Doctrine, and to formulate a theology of work, which stressed the role of man as a “coworker” of God.  Later, as a bishop, his addresses to workers in various professions and walks of life would become famous.  In them, he suggested to groups as varied as housewives and taxi-drivers the ways in which their endeavors were uniquely important to society and the Church, and how they can and should imitate Christ, the incarnate Word, in their particular kind of working lives.  These themes would later be important to Bl. John-Paul II’s great encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens.

Other examples of the judiciousness and balance of Wyszyński’s engagement with the world can be seen in his willingness to come to a modus vivendi with the Communist regime in order to spare the Church another decimation of clergy and faithful, such as had happened under the Nazi persecution.  The Church would not openly commit herself on purely political matters, while the regime would continue to let the Church operate in its own sphere.  This approach was not appreciated by some in the Western Church, even in the Vatican, who regarded it as too accomodationist with what was, after all, a repressive and atheist regime—but the popes from Pius XII to Paul VI trusted Wyszyński’s judgment in the matter, and time would prove them right.   He knew well that the regime could be counted on to honor its commitments to the Church only when it was in its own interests to do so, and that when it came to shaping the heart and minds of Poles, especially the youth, the Church and Communist state could only be enemies.  It was a fight he intended to win—but on the Church’s terms, and using its own unique spiritual and cultural armaments.   To use them to the full, as much toleration from the authorities of the Church’s internal operations as could be had was vital.  He was thus able to preserve, for instance, Catholic religious orders for the Polish Church—often the first Catholic institutions targeted for curtailment or liquidation by Communist governments.

Wyszyński was certainly a Polish patriot, in some respects an ardent one.  Nevertheless, he consciously endeavored to avoid the excesses of nationalism, which looked upon CatholicismFile:Stefan Wyszyński.jpg more as an instrument of Polish nationality rather than an international faith that commanded assent on its own terms.   The Christian measure of his patriotism can be seen in his role in helping organize the mutual statement of forgiveness on the part of the German and Polish bishops in the context of the Second Vatican Council. For taking this venture of national reconciliation, he and the Polish episcopate were savaged by Communist propaganda, which sought thereby to enlist ungenerous nationalist sentiment for its own purposes.  But, as is shown by his Corpus Christi statement in 1961, he extended his program of forgiveness to members of the Party as well.

Wyszyński’s influence was, of course, greatest in Poland.  But it should not be forgotten he also had a role in the history of the universal Church.  Together with the rest of the Polish episcopate, he helped to ensure that the Marian element was strong in the Vatican II constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, with special emphasis on her role as Mother of the Church.  Indeed, this old Marian title was nevertheless officially added for the first time to the Litany of Loretto by Paul VI in 1968, thanks in part to insistent requests of Wyszyński and other Poles.  Wyszyński’s appeals to his rights as a citizen in the face of abuse he suffered from the Communist regime were certainly not insincere, for he was definitely a supporter of a moderate, Christian idea of human rights, as reflected by his support for Dignitatis Humanae.  Yet, he, and other bishops who experienced Communist rule, also warned westerners who were overly enthusiastic about the prospects for the spread of human rights, that enemies of the Church such as the Communists would never interpret the language contained in Dignitatis Humanae in the same way the Church would, and, indeed, were quite capable of twisting its meaning against the Church.

Lastly, the influence of Wyszyński can be seen on the pastoral approach of Bl. John-Paul II, who was his junior colleague in the Polish episcopate prior to his election as pope in 1978.  The future pope indeed learned much from Wyszyński, despite some initial tensions between the two, in part due to differences in personal style.  For instance, the use of mass pilgrimage to build Catholic identity and win the youth away from secular models of culture, the careful respect for the national and folk dimensions of piety, and the need to engage the world, but cautiously and prudently, all mark ways in which John-Paul II was in continuity with Wyszyński.

The example of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński remains vital today.  Above all, he shows Catholics that the warrior for the faith is first of all a man of peace who deals with the world, and yet for all that, is not—and cannot be—of it: he was as wise as a serpent, and as simple as a dove.


  • Paul Radzilowski

    Paul Radzilowski teaches history at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

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