Cardinal Wyszynski On The Road To Sainthood
Primate of the Millennium – The Uncrowned King of Poland
By Robert Strybel
WARSAW–Poles were still in shock following the assassination attempt on heir beloved Pontiff John Paul II, when another tragedy struck. The Polish nation lost “The uncrowned King of Poland,” as Primate Stefan Wyszyński was known. The inscription “Niekoronowany Król Polski” was seen on his funeral wreath in tribute to a heroic religious leader who had shepherded his flock through the then 38-year-long communist ordeal. PHOTO: Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and St John Paul II – Photo Courtesy of Adam Bujak Bialy Kruk CNA
Having won the right to strike, for the past nine months the increasingly feisty, 10-million-strong pro-Catholic Solidarity movement had challenged one communist dogma after another and exposed the regime’s lies, corruption and anti-Polish crimes. Now the regime sought to regain at least a shred of credibility by trying to prove it was an empathetic part of the Polish nation, not an alien force brought to Poland on Soviet bayonets. On the day of the Wyszyński funeral, even the Communist Party daily Trybuna Ludu respectfully referred to him as “the Primate of the Millennium.”
Born in 1901 in the village of Zuzela into a deeply religious and patriotic family, little Stefcio (Stevie) lost his mother at the age of nine. Answering a call to the priesthood, Stefan was ordained in 1924. He went on to earn a PhD in Canon Law at the Catholic University of Lublin. He did parish work, lectured, headed the Włocławek Diocese’s charity department, edited a clergy periodical and sat on the the Episcopal Court.
Hunted by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, on his bishop’s advice, Father Wyszyński lay low and frequently changed his address. He engaged only in clandestine activities. He worked with the Catholic home for the blind in Laski near Warsaw and was the chaplain of an anti-German partisan group. Shortly after World War II ended, Pope Pius XII appointed him the Bishop of Lublin. When Polish Primate Cardinal August Hlond died in 1948, Bishop Wyszyński was appointed his successor. He would soon be facing his life’s most daunting challenge – the Stalinist regime’s attempt to destroy the Church he and most Poles believed in, respected and loved.
Unable to communicate with the Vatican, in 1950, the Primate took the bold risk of proposing an agreement with the government. The Church agreed to support the legality of ex-German lands ceded to Poland by the Big Three Allies and to call on the Vatican to appoint Polish bishops there. Priests should call on the faithful to support the Polish state, work to rebuild the war-torn country, condemn the anti-communist underground and West German “revanchist” politicians and bishops hoping to reclaim their territorial losses.
In exchange, the regime pledged to uphold the Church’s right to organize processions and pilgrimages as well as religious instruction in schools. The Catholic University of Lublin would continue to function, chaplains would be able to serve in hospitals, prisons and the armed forces and seminarians would get draft deferments. A Church Fund would be set up to compensate for property confiscated by the state.
The regime kept breaking its promises until in 1953 the Episcopate issued its historic “Non possumus” protest to the authorities. In a nutshell, it said: “We cannot accept this state of affairs.” As a result, many priests were jailed and tortured, Catholic institutions were taken over and Primate Wyszyński was arrested and kept under guard in successive disused monasteries. He was not released until 1956, when the new communist leader Władysław Gomułka introduced what was called “socialism with a human face” and needed the support of staunchly Catholic Poland.
Over the next quarter-century, Church-state run-ins occurred over the Polish bishop’s “we forgive and ask for forgiveness” letter to their German counterparts as well as the regime’s refusal to grant church building permits. The Church protested against atheistic indoctrination of seminarians in the Polish army. A dispute even raged over whether 1966 marked Poland’s Christian Millennium or a Thousand Years of Polish Statehood. The election of a Polish Pope in 1978 surprised and shocked the regime which initially did not realize that it would spell the death knell for communist rule not only in Poland.
Servant of God Stefan Wyszyński is due to be beatified in Warsaw on September 12th, 2021. A medically inexplicable cure attributed to his intercession served as the basis of the canonical process. Beatification is the penultimate stage leading to Catholic sainthood. The Wyszyński beatification had originally been scheduled for 2020 but was postponed over pandemic concerns.