During Pope John Paul II's latest visit to Poland, papal protocol placed the leader of the Lublin Archdiocese just a step or two behind him. In many ways, the 51-year-old archbishop has been following in the footsteps of the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla for a long time. Register correspondent Catherine M. Odell recently interviewed Archbishop Zycinski at the University of Notre Dame.
Catherine Odell: In many ways, your priestly career and interests parallel those of Pope John Paul II. When did you first meet him?
Archbishop Jozef Zycinski: It was in 1966, when I was 18 years old. I had just arrived at the seminary in Krakow. Cardinal Wojtyla came to talk to us and had just returned from the Vatican Council (1962-65). Even at this first meeting, we were fascinated both by his charming personality and by the vision of the Church after the council, which he presented to us.
You had just arrived — what had led you to join the seminary?
When I was growing up, it was the time of ideological brainwashing in the schools under communism. My father passed away when I was 12 years old, and I would say that it was really my mother who formed my younger brother and me as people sensitive to Christian values. If parents teach their children that openness to the other — such an important value — we find many, many vocations. My brother is five years younger and he is also a priest. He is now the dean of theology at the Pontifical Academy of Krakow.
I also read a lot as a young boy. I can't say that I read all kinds of things because there was a censor in Poland at the time. I was particularly attracted to philosophy and to drama.
You have traveled extensively in the United States and even studied here at The Catholic University of America as well as at Louvain in Belgium. How is the Church in the United States like the Church in Poland and how is it different?
They are similar. ... I meet Americans who treat religion seriously. And in Poland, thanks be to God, in our families, we saved the spirit of Catholicism. We have many people who suffered during the communist days when they presented themselves as Catholics, as Christians. At the same time, in other Eastern Bloc countries, the secularization was so extensive that families paid no attention to God.
So, I like those Americans who don't like to be spectacular, but who want to express their faith. They don't agree with those who tell them: “Keep religion in your private life. Religion is a private affair.”
Our countries are different. ... Here, there was always a combining of democracy and religion. Some people will say that in a democratic society, such as you have in the United States, religion plays no important role. They say that state regulations and law are enough to [order society]. But personally, I agree with John Paul II when he says that no stable democratic system can be built without moral foundations. For me, the United States is a country where the faith of the Founding Fathers was the foundation for the American democracy.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Church in Poland?
The cultural transformation. Communism is over already nine years in Poland and we have a radical process of change going on. Sometimes people are attracted to pseudo-values, to false lights. We can't overemphasize the role of tradition and our history. We have to find a symbiosis between the past and the future and to reply in ways suggested by the Gospel to renewed challenges in our time.
There were many predictions that when communism fell in Poland, nobody would attend Church. They said that people came to Church to protest communist indoctrination. But, our churches are full. And the people waiting to go to confession? Maybe the lines are longer now than they used to be 10 years ago.
And the people waiting to go to confession? Maybe the lines are longer now than they used to be 10 years ago.
We have many new international contacts. People are coming from France, Germany and Scandinavia, and bringing their own patterns of life. But when one is mature enough, one chooses what is good in these patterns and adjusts them to his or her own inspirations.
You worry about the misuse of the Internet. Why?
I think that we now face cultural changes because of the Internet. The consequences of such a revolution could be as profound as the changes brought by Gutenberg and the Bible. I am really afraid that it could result in a “virtual mentality,” where the difference between the real and the imaginary is neglected. Intellectual centers, and not just Catholic centers, must assume responsibility for solidarity in defending human values. We have a priceless tradition which has been formed by our civilization's great thinkers and artists — Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart. There's a risk that our great classics will no longer be appreciated and will introduce a Mickey Mouse substitute for real values.
You see that as a real threat?
Oh yes, the “Mickey Mousation” of values: “Take it easy; keep smiling, don't think too much.”
Pope John Paul II expects great blessings to come from the Jubilee year 2000. What are the plans for this great event in your diocese?
We have preparations going on at various levels. On the family level, we have family visitations. Particular families gather together and bring the cross and the Bible to a designated house. The families pray, meditate upon the cross and Scripture with prepared meditations.
We also have various groups responsible for preparation in the academic centers: for professors, students, various groups, for pastoral action and teen-agers.
In my diocese, there is definitely an academic milieu. At the Catholic University of Lublin, we have 16,000 students and at the four other universities, we have about 35,000. I also created groups for the elderly and for single people. They gather and need this kind of solidarity.
On the second level, we have international cooperation and are trying to bridge divisions between the Eastern Church and the Western Church. My diocese borders on the Ukraine. Next year, we will have about 30,000 youth from the Ukraine come with their bishop to the University of Lublin to pray with us, to discuss, to bridge. In my seminary now, there are 74 Ukrainians of the Byzantine rite. I agreed that they could be students at the Catholic University and have lodging and formation at my seminary because there is no seminary in the Ukraine.
And last year, I was invited to St. Petersburg to the Catholic seminary for Russia to deliver the opening lecture at the beginning of the academic year. For the first time, I lectured in Russian and celebrated a Mass in that language.
The third level of our preparation is an international conference which we will host at Lublin next September. It will be called “Christian Roots of the Future.” We will discuss the challenges of the present and try to find new inspiration for the 21st century. I have invited scholars from Oxford, Germany, France, Russia and Italy.
Speaking of inspiration, which saint has been the most important model on your journey?
Of all the saints, I like St. John the Baptist the most. He was the predecessor of Jesus Christ, pointing always to Christ. And he was a person who was smart enough to face all of his challenges. He left his house. Probably, as the only child, he had a good foundation, but he chose the desert with his pupils. And later, when his pupils left him to follow Jesus, he was clever enough to face that new challenge. When he was killed, it was because of his constancy. So, I like him very much.