Archbishop of Krakow: To Be a Credible Opponent of Russian Imperialism, Europe Must Remember Who It Is
Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski discusses the root causes of the current war, the painful past of Poland and Ukraine, and the European Union’s recent sanctions against Poland that he considers counterproductive.
KRAKOW, Poland — Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has reopened the old wounds inscribed in the collective memories of all the countries that lived under the yoke of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, starting with Poland, with which Ukraine shares almost the entirety of its eastern border and which acts as the first host country for the populations lacerated by the ongoing war.
While Catholic institutions in the country like Caritas or Sant’ Egidio have been at the forefront of the assistance offered to the uninterrupted flow of people — mostly women and children — fleeing Ukraine since Feb. 24, some Church leaders have made it a point of honor to show their personal commitment in addressing the subsequent humanitarian, spiritual and political crisis spreading across Europe.
This is the case in particular for Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Krakow, who personally welcomed some 800 refugees at the city’s train station on the evening of March 2 and who more recently opened the doors of his own residence to some Ukrainian families.
The prelate, who has served as the head of the historic diocese of St. John Paul II (of whom he was a close friend) since 2017, does not hide his concern about the expansionist impulses of Vladimir Putin, in which he perceives a dream of reestablishing a Russian empire on the former territories of the Soviet Union. Archbishop Jędraszewski discusses this concern in this Register interview, during which he also lamented the loss of the common ground of Europe, once unified by Christianity but which now has no credible model or values to oppose the forces threatening it.
How would you define the historical moment we are living in?
On the one hand, there is the desire of Putin and others to recreate the Soviet Union [which collapsed in 1991], precisely like our late President Lech Kaczyński — who died in the Smolensk tragedy in 2010 — had predicted. During the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, he went with the presidents of Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia to Tbilisi, Georgia, and prophesied that after Georgia it would be the turn of Ukraine, then the neighboring countries of the Baltic Sea, and in the end probably my country, Poland. And here it is happening before our eyes.
Now, there is a battle going on to retake Ukraine, and then, of course, [we are concerned about] Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. ... We know that the Ukrainians, who are fighting for their freedom, are also fighting for our freedom.
How did you receive the news of the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary? What does it mean to you, and how are you preparing for this event in Krakow?
Pope Francis said that this event is a consequence of the various voices that have been reaching him with the request to fulfill the will of Mary of Fatima and to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. In the text that Pope Francis sent us, it is mentioned that, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary “we solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the Church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine.” To this Heart we then consecrate the whole world, which today in various places suffers greatly from wars, and we pray to Mary for the gift and the grace of true and just peace — this peace which brings us the Risen Christ, who is the very first message of peace.
The event of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary will be celebrated in all parishes of the Archdiocese of Krakow, especially at the Wawel Cathedral. Right after this consecration throughout the archdiocese will follow an adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to unify our prayers for peace, and it will last the whole night.
As the archbishop of Krakow, you have spared no effort or resources of your diocese to properly welcome refugees into your various buildings. After personally greeting hundreds of them at the train station on the evening of Ash Wednesday, you’re now also welcoming Ukrainian families in your residence. What impact do these encounters and experiences have on you?
There is a big flow every day, every night, of refugees coming to Poland. Nearly 800 people arrived on the night of March 2 alone, almost all of them women with young children, and the flow has been uninterrupted ever since.
It’s not easy for me to talk about it. ... To see these children with their mothers, who so often carry very few things with them, even just a handbag; many are so tired, not knowing what to do. Many people cry. But they are received with great welcome, brotherhood, by the state, by the municipalities, by Caritas of the Church. They know they are in good hands; they have had warm food, a great offer to stay in Krakow itself or elsewhere. We help them to go where they want, even to other parts of Poland.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of fake news spread especially by the Russians, according to which many women who arrive in Poland are sent to brothels and the children taken by the authorities and closed in camps. For them [the refugees], it is a journey to a totally unknown place; many are frightened. But when they see us, they are reassured.
How would you describe the historical link between Poland and Ukraine?
It is a very complex history. The beginning of Christianity in Poland and Ukraine dates back to the end of the 10th century. In 1018, there was a war between the German Emperor Henry II, allied with the Grand Prince of Kiev (Kyiv), Jaroslav I Vladimirovich, called the Wise, against Poland. After the treaty of peace of Bautzen was signed with the emperor in January 1018, Boleslaus I, the first king of Poland, launched an offensive that took him to Kiev in just three weeks, and Poland took many territories in the region.
Then, for three centuries, from 1350 until 1660 more or less, Ukraine was part of Poland. In the middle of the 17th century, there were very cruel wars between the people of present-day Ukraine, who wanted their independence, and Poland. In order to free themselves from Poland, in the years 1660 to 1680, a large part of the Ukrainians accepted the Moscow czar as their ruler. This is how their tragedy began. … John Paul II, during his visit to Kyiv in 2001, spoke beautifully about the Ukrainian history and recalled forcefully the suffering of the Ukrainian people during communism.
But he did not speak about a page of history that remains very difficult for us Poles. When war broke out between Russia and Hitler’s Germany in 1941, a part of the Ukrainians supported Hitler. This part of the country, especially in the Volhynia region, wanted to create a clean space from other nations. A lot of Poles lived there because, before World War II, a whole part of the region still belonged to Poland; for example, the city of Lviv. Terrible, unimaginable things happened then. What Ukrainians did to Poles in 1943, especially to women, is unspeakable. So far, the Ukrainian authorities have not said anything about this.
When I went to Lviv about eight years ago, I visited, among other things, the Polytechnic [National] University of the city. When you enter these immense buildings, who greets you? Statues, monuments to the figure of Stepan Bandera, who is directly responsible for the massacres of Poles during the war. So it’s not an easy story, to say the least.
But history is history, and we must look to the future and unite, in the knowledge that Russia has not forgotten its great history, that of the empire. And, in fact, many Russian propagandists are trying to reactivate these painful memories of 1943-1944 to divide Poland and Ukraine and dissuade the Poles from taking in refugees. But despite our painful history, we are united by Christianity beyond all else, and thus by forgiveness.
Many media outlets strongly criticized Poland for its reaction in the face of the refugee crisis on the border with Belarus last fall. Now, it seems that Poland has become for many a model to be followed, even if some columnists continue to blame the country for not welcoming refugees from Belarus and those from Ukraine in the same way. What do you think about this?
We knew very well that these refugees on the border with Belarus were not real refugees; they were people brought by Belarusian President Aljaksandr Lukašėnka to get them into Poland and thus unbalance the country, to cause things similar to what we saw in the streets of Cologne or Milan. If they got in, we would have had problems with them, and we would not then have had the strength to help those who really need it today. You have to see this problem with Belarus with the so-called refugees as a first step to prepare the Russian “mission” against Ukraine.
When the Poles saw these Ukrainian people — who are really in great difficulty, homeless, victims of the war —they showed that they are always ready to help, to give everything, with an open heart. And I am told by several parish priests of the Archdiocese of Krakow that during Sunday Masses they keep receiving many offerings from the faithful to help their Ukrainian brothers.
In addition to the consequences of the war initiated by Vladimir Putin, your country is also facing sanctions from Brussels, which is pushing for immediate activation of the Rule of Law Conditionality mechanism to deprive Poland of European funds. Do you understand these policies?
First of all, the EU did almost nothing during the 2008 invasion, not even in 2014, with the crisis in Crimea. Now, also thanks to the efforts of the Polish government and other countries, the EU is waking up and is doing a lot, especially by removing economic, sports, cultural ties with Russia and by helping Ukraine, with economic means and especially with weapons. For us, this solidarity from the EU is a sign of hope.
However, while they want to create a union against Russia, rightly so, in the European Parliament they continue to organize initiatives to have Poland condemned for allegedly violating the rule of law. We have just been condemned, and now they want to open a new procedure against Poland’s judicial system, calling into question the democratic mechanisms of our courts of justice.
There is a lot of talk about the so-called “European values,” but we Europeans no longer know who we are. A thousand years ago, despite many battles, many betrayals, there was Christianity as a common factor to unify us. Europe was based on Christianity. Now, this common base no longer exists. We are united only by the market, by money; it has become very difficult to cement Europe. On what? Who are we? We do not know. How can we oppose Russia’s expansionist ambitions if we do not know who we are, if we do not remain united in our historical foundation, which is Christianity? It would be more than time to reflect on this.
In this respect, I would also like to quote a fragment, very relevant for today, of the homily pronounced by St. John Paul II in 1997, on the occasion of the 1,000th anniversary of the death of St. Adalbert: “Can we not say that after the collapse of one wall [of Berlin], the visible one, another, invisible wall was discovered, one that continues to divide our continent — the wall that exists in people’s hearts? […] Even the undeniable achievements of recent years in the economic, political and social fields do not hide the fact that this wall exists. It casts its shadow over all of Europe. The goal of the authentic unity of the European continent is still distant. There will be no European unity until it is based on unity of the spirit. This most profound basis of unity was brought to Europe and consolidated down the centuries by Christianity with its Gospel, with its understanding of man and with its contribution to the development of the history of peoples and nations. This does not signify a desire to appropriate history, for the history of Europe is a great river into which many tributaries flow, and the variety of traditions and cultures which shape it is its great treasure. The foundations of the identity of Europe are built on Christianity. And its present lack of spiritual unity arises principally from the crisis of this Christian self-awareness.”
- solene tadie
- Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski
- archdiocese of krakow
- european history
- Ukrainian refugees