In Memory of Jerzy Gałkowski — Student of John Paul II, Servant of Christ and a Heartfelt Good Man
Professor Gałkowski was a scholar, teacher, helper, husband and father — and he was my friend.
Jerzy Gałkowski, longtime professor of ethics at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and one of the last living graduate students of Karol Wojtyła (St. John Paul II) died April 21 in Lublin after a long illness, four days short of his 85th birthday.
Gałkowski began his academic career at KUL in 1956 and remained there until he died. He earned his master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral habilitation from KUL. Wojtyła was his dissertation mentor. Gałkowski defended his doctorate, on moral norms according to the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus, in 1967. He became an ordinary professor — the highest academic rank — in 1998, holding the chair in social and political ethics. He wrote on moral norms and the philosophy of labor.
He was a distinguished academic. And he was my friend.
I met him in 1989, in part due to the John Paul nexus. I was attending the Polish Institute of Christian Culture’s summer program at the John Paul II Foundation in Rome. In those days, one reason KUL professors came to Rome was to say out loud what Communist political correctness in Poland silenced. Jerzy and his wife, Maria Braun-Gałkowska (also a professor — of psychology — at KUL) were lecturing that year.
Their presence was a two-fer: not only were they part of the John Paul II Foundation’s program, but they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary on July 6 and wanted to do so with the priest who officiated at that marriage: Karol Wojtyła.
On June 29, all of us attended the Pope’s public Mass for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. Besides being a major Petrine feast it was (until recently) the day that new archbishops from around the world came to Rome to receive their palliums from the Pope.
The Foundation group stayed and went to lunch together because we were to have a private audience late that afternoon with the Pope. Meeting the Pope, especially for the first time, is a great honor, but I was extra nervous because I was going to present him with a copy of my doctoral dissertation. It was about John Paul, specifically his pre-papal writings on sexual ethics.
We were assembled in an inner courtyard and the Pope was going to move from one group to another. Father Stefan Wylężek, who led our group, came over to me and asked me in Polish, “Do you know Professor Jerzy Gałkowski?” Back then, my Polish was worse than it is now, so I thought he was asking me whether I knew of Gałkowski: I didn’t catch that he was planning on introducing me. So, I answered him, in Polish, “Yes, I’ve read his book and I think he’s a solid guy.”
All of a sudden, this very big and tall man standing at my side reaches out his hand to me and says, “I’m happy that you think that!”
So began 33 years of friendship.
I spent 1992-93 as a Kościuszko Foundation Fellow at KUL and we got to know each other much better. Jerzy and Maria frequently welcomed me into their home and I had the privilege of watching their children grow up. Janek, whom I knew as a young boy, is now a Polish diplomat.
Professor Gałkowski knew I was interested in staying at KUL and did his best to make that happen (though eventually Seton Hall beckoned me back to New Jersey). He came up with a plan early to help the KUL faculty to get to know me better — no insignificant task when you hold a doctorate in theology from a Jesuit university in the United States and many of your potential colleagues wondered at least silently “can anything good come out of American theology?” I was going to give some topical lectures in Polish … something I had never done before. He got his English-speaking student — now my friend, Professor Jan Kłos — to translate them.
My first lecture presented the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus’s then-relatively new idea of “the naked public square,” his argument that a false notion of “democracy” demanded believers to divest themselves of their religious commitments in order to participate in public life. This issue was brewing in the 1980s in America, and quickly came to the fore in free Poland as efforts to incorporate Christian values in public life were attacked by certain political groupings as “creating a confessional state.”
One of my preferred methods to refute critics is reductio ad absurdum, showing the absurd and extreme results a given position must lead to if you carry it to its logical conclusion. Some people find it off-putting because it is polemical: I remember one of my Fordham professors, the Hungarian Jesuit Father Andrew Varga, reminding me that “you attract more bees with honey than vinegar.” Maybe I’m wrong or maybe I just have a choleric temperament, but I never found much sense in going down a slippery slope and then trying to get your footing halfway down.
So, in criticizing one alleged argument for a naked public square — that religion in public life is divisive and supposedly lead to totalitarian consequences like the Spanish Inquisition — I tailored my critique for an audience in a former Iron Curtain country. I wrote:
Secularism is supposedly a guarantor of social peace and religion a lethal danger. Well, in lethal comparison to secularists like Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Bierut, Gomułka, Gierek, Jaruzelski, Husák, Kadar, Zhikov, Ceaucescu, Hoxha, Mao, Castro, Kim Il-Sung, and Ulbricht, Torquemada was a rank amateur.
Kłos genteelly noted that Polish academics might be surprised by something that blunt but, I figured, if you’re going to get me you might as well knew what you’re getting. Sure enough, the first reaction was really open eyes. Not soon after were nodding heads.
Professor Gałkowski and I shared lots of ideas. We didn’t always agree on politics. As Father Andrzej Szostek, a former rector of KUL observed, Gałkowski not only wrote about but lived freedom. He could have intense discussions with people he profoundly disagreed with, but he never lost respect for them. He never used discussion to cancel anybody out. In that way, he was a model of what true dialogue is for our troubled times.
We had lots of fun together. Because his doctoral students came from all over Poland, he organized his doctoral seminars on Saturdays so that those with jobs could participate. In March 1993, he decided to do the seminar at his cottage in the woods near Lublin. A couple of other students (Gałkowski and Kłos) and I were going there together, but we had only one car: a Polish “Maluch,” a very small, tight and cramped Fiat. Gałkowski, I and at least two of our fellow travelers were not ads for Weight Watchers. We all crammed into that car. How it managed to travel the 25-some miles was its own miracle. If you think years back to the craze of people jamming into a telephone booth (if you are under 30, ask somebody what that is) you can picture our Maluch.
Professor Gałkowski was a solid teacher and scholar. His work on the philosophy of labor, however, was not just some academic head trip: he was responsible for helping organize Solidarność in the Lublin area, the free trade union that ultimately helped bring down communism. And it wasn’t just abstract: how many students who could not make ends meet who found they could, thanks to a man who had his own family to support on a meager Catholic salary, was made manifest a week ago at his particular judgment.
Scholar, teacher, helper, husband, father. I apply to him the appellation given to describe Blessed Edmund Bojanowski: “serdecznie dobry człowiek,” a “heartfelt good man.” Or, as I described him back in Rome, “a solid guy.”
Eternal rest grant unto your servant Jerzy, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him, Amen.
(For another report on Professor Gałkowski, see here.)