Cardinal Sapieha: Foe of Nazis and Communists, Shepherd of a Young John Paul II

The Polish people’s faith was strengthened amidst oppression thanks to such saintly, heroic shepherds as Cardinal Adam Sapieha.

(photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Sygnatura: 1-R-161)

From St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr to St. John Paul II, the Archdiocese of Krakow has had its share of heroic pastors across the centuries. Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, archbishop of Krakow from 1911 until his death in 1951, must be counted among these great men. His episcopal ministry coincided with the dramatic events that made Poland’s twentieth century one marked especially by martyrdom and tragedy. During the two world wars and Stalinism, Sapieha always courageously defended his flock; to use Pope Francis’ memorable phrase, he was a shepherd with the scent of his sheep. As today marks the 150th anniversary of Cardinal Sapieha’s birth, it is worth recalling his legacy, one that had an enormous impact on the recent history of Poland and on the vocation of Pope St. John Paul II.

Like St. Francis of Assisi, Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha was born into a life of privilege, yet chose a life of saintly service to the Church. Sapieha was born on May 14, 1867, in a castle to a prominent aristocratic family. (Queen Mathilde of Belgium is the great-granddaughter of Cardinal Sapieha’s brother, Władysław Leon.) Having studied in Lille, Vienna, Krakow, and Innsbruck, the young Sapieha felt called to the priesthood, and joined the seminary in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1892. The promising young priest was appointed as a private secretary to Pope St. Pius X in 1905. Six years later, Pius designated Sapieha as archbishop of Krakow.

Three years later, the First World War broke out. At that time, Poland had been partitioned by its stronger neighbors – Russia, Prussia, and Austria – for more than a century. These powers were at war, and Poland was frequently a theater for battles between them. A true humanitarian, in 1915 Archbishop Sapieha formed the “Prince Bishop’s Committee” (Książęco-Biskupi Komitet) to aid his faithful impoverished by the war. Collections were held in churches, while concerts and theatrical performances were held as fundraising events. Sapieha also convinced Pope Benedict XV to issue a letter to Catholic bishops around the world asking them to aid war-ravaged Poland.

In interwar Poland, Sapieha’s authority grew. In 1934, he started the Krakow branch of the international Catholic charity Caritas, and he even briefly served as a senator from Poland’s Christian Democratic party. However, Sapieha’s moral authority in Polish society reached a pinnacle during the Second World War. In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, unleashing six years of sheer misery during which six million Polish citizens, including three million Jews, were killed. The psychopathic German lawyer Hans Frank ruled the General Government, the part of Poland not annexed by the Third Reich. Frank tried to get Sapieha to collaborate with the Nazis — by issuing a joint letter criticizing Bolshevism, for instance — but Sapieha never gave in. Instead, Sapieha sent letters to Frank appealing him to end his sadistic campaign against the Polish nation and especially against the clergy, who were greatly persecuted by Nazi Germany (more than half of the priests in the Dachau concentration camp were Poles). Sapieha gave Poles persecuted by the occupier moral and material support, and the Polish underground in Krakow frequently consulted with him on key decisions.

Sapieha was also sensitive to the plight of Krakow’s Jews, isolated from the rest of the population in a ghetto and then shipped off to killing centers. In the first months of the occupation, Sapieha unsuccessfully tried to appeal to the German authorities to exempt Catholic Jews from the repressive policies. Contrary to his critics’ charges, Sapieha did not limit his aid to Jewish converts. There are numerous written testimonies in which priests claim to have received direct orders from the archbishop to create phony baptismal certificates for Jewish fugitives, while according to Aleksander Bieberstein, chronicler of the Krakow Ghetto, Sapieha appealed to the SS to exempt three local rabbis from repression (of course, the SS didn’t listen and deported the rabbis to Auschwitz instead). Sapieha also helped secure hiding places for Jews in convents and among Catholic families.

Himself educated as some of Europe’s finest universities, Cardinal Sapieha was convinced of the need to form a strong Catholic intelligentsia. In 1912, he founded the first ministry for university students in Poland at St. Anne’s church in Krakow (today, the church is the Jagiellonian University’s collegiate church). In 1945, Sapieha founded the Catholic cultural journal Tygodnik Powszechny (“The Universal Weekly”), which today is still one of Poland’s most influential and widely read intellectual publications. The Krakow-based weekly’s collaborators included the young priest Father Karol Wojtyła. Under communism, Tygodnik was politically the boldest and most independent Polish publication (in 1953, Poland’s communist authorities fired all of its staff after the magazine refused to publish a panegyric obituary for Joseph Stalin, replacing them with pro-regime sycophants; only after the thaw in 1956 were its original editors and journalists reinstalled).

In 1946, Pope Pius XII made Archbishop Sapieha a cardinal. Approaching eighty, Sapieha was growing tired and weak, yet he did not end his defense of the Polish nation. Having suffered a horrific occupation, Poland was once again subjugated to an evil empire. One of the first things that the communists did after gaining power in Poland was to persecute the Church, which occupied a central place in the hearts of most Poles. Church property was confiscated, while many priests were executed or imprisoned after show trials in which they were falsely accused of being spies for the Vatican or the CIA. Cardinal Sapieha protested vocally and vigorously.

When Sapieha died in 1951, enormous crowds attended his funeral at Wawel Cathedral; Church sources estimate the number at 100,000. Never before had so many people bid farewell to an archbishop of Krakow. The Polish people felt they had lost a father, a Moses-like figure who led them through the desert of two bloody world wars and communist oppression.

Cardinal Sapieha played a key role in Karol Wojtyła’s vocation. In 1938, he went to the town of Wadowice for confirmation. Among those confirmed was Wojtyła. Sapieha asked him what his plans for the future were. When he learned that he planned on studying Polish literature in Krakow, Sapieha lamented that he didn’t choose the seminary instead. During the war, Wojtyła studied in Sapieha’s illegal seminary. After the war, the future pope – smitten with the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila – asked him if he could leave the diocesan seminary and become a Carmelite monk. Sapieha denied the request, instructing him to instead finish what he had started. (Many believe that Sapieha was in part motivated by the fact that Poland, whose clergy was murdered on a massive scale in concentration camps, desperately needed new diocesan priests.)

Few countries experienced so much suffering in the twentieth century as Poland. Yet despite the efforts of hostile powers, the Poles never lost their faith. This faith was crucial to the formation of Solidarity in the 1980s, which was a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Polish people’s faith was to a large degree kept intact and even strengthened amidst oppression thanks to such saintly, heroic shepherds as Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Pope St. John Paul II, and Cardinal Adam Sapieha.