Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński: ‘The Primate of the Millennium’

COMMENTARY: The Church leader, who will be beatified Sept. 12 in Warsaw, was the living incarnation of Poland’s 20th-century experience.

Polish Cardinals Karol Wojtyla (l) and Stefan Wyszyński arrive for the funeral of the late Pope Paul VI on Aug. 11, 1978. Cardinal Wyszyński will be beatified Sept. 12 in Warsaw.
Polish Cardinals Karol Wojtyla (l) and Stefan Wyszyński arrive for the funeral of the late Pope Paul VI on Aug. 11, 1978. Cardinal Wyszyński will be beatified Sept. 12 in Warsaw. (photo: AP photo)

Forty years ago, the massive funeral procession of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was led by a banner that read, “God gives us such a father and shepherd once in a thousand years.”

He will be beatified on Sept. 12 in Warsaw and known henceforth as “Blessed Stefan Wyszyński.”

But in Poland he will remain always the “Primate of the Millennium,” as that processional banner acknowledged.

Imprisoned for three years (1953-1956) by the communist regime, he emerged a cultural colossus who conducted a nationwide “Great Novena,” nine years of spiritual, cultural and social preparation for the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Poland in 966. The Great Novena revealed the true character of the Polish nation, notwithstanding its communist regime.

Cardinal Wyszyński emerged at the millennium as the undisputed leader of the Polish people. His invitation to Pope St. Paul VI to attend the millennial celebrations was blocked by the communists. When Pope St. John Paul II came to Poland in 1979, he began by speaking of his presence as the surprising providential answer to the great primate’s invitation. The Pope was indeed in Poland, but one far more fearsome than the communists could have imagined.

Primate Wyszyński was Moses to the communist pharaoh for 33 years as head of the Church in Poland. Named primate of Poland in 1948, then the youngest bishop in Poland, he served simultaneously as archbishop of Gniezno (the ancient primatial see) and Warsaw (the political capital).

His beatification takes place during what has been declared by the Polish parliament as the “Year of Stefan Wyszyński,” marking the 120th anniversary of his birth in 1901 and the 40th anniversary of his death in 1981. It is the crowning of a remarkable Polish life, a living incarnation of Poland’s 20th-century experience. 

Wyszyński was born on Aug. 3, 1901, without a country. Poland had been eliminated from the map of Europe in 1795, carved up and occupied by the three neighboring powers, Russia, Prussia (Germany) and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Young Stefan would attend primary school taught in Russian, something that would become useful in later life when reading clandestine documents from the Soviet Union. He would lose his mother early, at 9 years of age, a similar experience to that of John Paul. Like him, his spirituality was marked by an intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “new” mother in his life. He would offer his first Mass as a newly ordained priest in the chapel of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Jasna Gora at Czestochowa, Poland’s national shrine.

Poland regained its independence at the end of the Great War (1918) and immediately had to fight off the Bolshevik Red Army to preserve it. Wyszyński was ordained a priest — on his 23rd birthday in 1924 — during this brief respite from foreign occupation.

He studied at the newly established Catholic University of Lublin, completing his doctoral dissertation on “The Rights of the Family, the Church and the State With Regard to Schools.” It was another preparation for the battles he would later fight.

The 1930s were (relatively) tranquil for Father Wyszyński, teaching in the seminary. At this time his friendship grew with Róza Czacka, foundress of the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross. Blind herself, Róza — Mother Elzbieta in religion — founded her congregation to care for the blind, at that time consigned to a life of dependence and often misery. Father Wyszyński would spend much time with the sisters and the blind children in their care. He would teach them catechism, but he said later that they taught him much more than he taught them.

In marvelous Providence, Mother Elzbieta Czacka will be beatified in the same ceremony as the primate, two friends elevated to the altars together.

World War II saw the brutalization of Poland and the Polish clergy. Some 6 million Poles were killed — 20% of the population. Similarly, 20% of the Polish clergy, some 2,000 out of 10,000 diocesan priests, were killed during the war. 

In his own Diocese of Włocławek all of the priests were rounded up; Father Wyszyński escaped only because his bishop had sent him away as a precaution. In one of Father Wyszyński’s notebooks, he lists the names of priests of his diocese who were killed: The list fills an entire page.

Upon his imprisonment as primate in 1953, Cardinal Wyszyński would write: 

“I had feared that I would never share this honor, which had befallen all of my seminary colleagues. They had all experienced concentration camps and prisons. The majority of them had lost their lives there. … Most of the priests and bishops with whom I had worked had experienced prisons. Something would have been wrong if I had not experienced imprisonment. What was happening to me was very appropriate.”

The lethal persecution of the Polish Church under Nazi Germany shaped the new primate’s approach to the communist regime imposed by Stalin at the end of World War II. He would write in his prison diary:

“From the very beginning of my work, I had taken the stand that the Church in Poland had already shed too much blood in German concentration camps to afford to squander the lives of its surviving priests. Martyrdom is undoubtedly an honorable thing, but God leads His Church not only along an extraordinary way, that of martyrdom, but also along an ordinary way, that of apostolic work. 

Indeed, I was of the opinion that the modern world needed another kind of martyrdom — the martyrdom of work, not of blood.” Thus Cardinal Wyszyński set about his apostolic work, carrying the immense burden of the entire Polish Church upon his shoulders. That burden was especially grave for the cardinal, given that Pope Pius XII gave him special powers in Poland. In particular, he largely exercised the authority of the Holy See in regard to the appointment of bishops.

This “martyrdom of work” was his life’s calling, carrying on his pastoral ministry knowing that he was under constant surveillance and subject to betrayal from even those in the Church. 

That he did not falter is a remarkable human achievement. That he provided spiritual freedom to a people under totalitarian oppression is a remarkable supernatural achievement. 

Like Moses, Stefan Wyszyński did not live to see his people enter the promised land of liberation. But the Lord granted him his Mount Nebo moment, the triumphant, history-making pilgrimage of John Paul to Poland in June 1979. After that visit, it was over. Like Moses, Cardinal Wyszyński had seen the promised land. 

It would take 10 years — sometimes bloody, as in the martyrdom of a priest that Cardinal Wyszyński himself ordained, Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko — to work out the dénouement, but when Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński died on the feast of the Ascension in May 1981, he knew that the victory had been won.