Cardinal Dziwisz: A Providential Life of Service, Alongside St. John Paul II

COMMENTARY: The Polish cardinal retired last week at the age of 77.

Pope Francis is greeted by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and President Andrzej Duda upon his arrival for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, on July 27.
Pope Francis is greeted by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and President Andrzej Duda upon his arrival for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, on July 27. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop of Kraków and previously personal secretary to St. John Paul II for 39 years, retired last week at the age of 77. His has been a great providential life, now coming to an end of active service. Like the man he served, being archbishop of Kraków was only the second-most-important job he held. The first was his long service in Rome.

On the occasion of World Youth Day this past summer, of which Cardinal Dziwisz was the host, I wrote a review of his long service. Upon his retirement, there is another aspect that bears noting, especially considering the current environment in Rome. At the heart of the Vatican, engaged in world and Church-changing events, Cardinal Dziwisz was a key figure — the key figure after the Pope himself — that created a spirit of cohesion and civility.

Recently, my EWTN colleague Robert Royal, reporting on last month’s consistory for cardinals in Rome, spoke about “this awful week in Rome,” beset as the Church is by divisions and even rancor.

“[Pope Francis] essentially admitted as much in his remarks at the consistory,” wrote Royal. “He said, ‘How many situations of uncertainty and suffering are sown by this growing animosity between peoples, between us! ... Between us, within our communities, our priests, our meetings.’”

It is a frequent report from Rome: There is uncertainty and anxiety, an environment which has given rise to clear divisions, occasionally expressed with disparagement, including from those who are in the Holy Father’s inner circle.

The approach of “Don Stanislao,” as he was known throughout the Vatican, was quite different. Indisputably the man closest to the Pope, often physically at his side, he conducted himself with great discretion and gentility.

“The relationship between the two men is perhaps best described as that which every father wants from a son: love and duty without fear and sycophancy,” wrote George Weigel in Witness to Hope. “Dziwisz brought complete loyalty, utter discretion, sharp judgment, a puckish sense of humor and indefatigability to his job.”

“It is the unhappy lot of the papal secretary to have to say ‘No’ to many important people, including many important Churchmen, and the resentments that can build up are, if not edifying, at least understandable,” Weigel continued. “Yet Dziwisz has not drawn the resentment and wrath of men of rank in the Church the way some of his predecessors have. That is explained, at least in part, by the fact that this son of very humble conditions is a gentleman whose selflessness is known and respected, even by those to whom he has to say ‘No.’”

At the end of his memoir A Life with Karol, done in the form of an extended interview, Cardinal Dziwisz recalls with typical modesty, “I did accompany him through an important stage of the Church’s journey.” That accompaniment was an essential aspect of John Paul’s pontificate, as important, in a different way, as was the collaboration with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

That accompaniment began unremarkably, but definitively. On Oct. 8, 1966 — during the year of the observance of the millennium of Polish Christianity — a young Father Dziwisz, ordained three years previously by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was summoned to his office.

“As soon as I came in to see him, he looked straight at me and said, ‘I’d like you to come and live here. You can continue with your [doctoral] studies and give me a hand,’” Cardinal Dziwisz recalls. “‘When?’ I asked. He replied ‘Today will work.’”

Father Dziwisz came back the next day and never left until John Paul was buried in St. Peter’s. Neither Wojtyla nor Dziwisz knew then all that would transpire over the next 39 years, or that Dziwisz would one day return as Kraków’s cardinal-archbishop to build a great shrine to St. John Paul II. He welcomed Pope Francis at the shrine this past World Youth Day. Yet it is evident now that all that would follow was somehow already being prepared in that meeting of October 1966.

On June 23, 2013, Cardinal Dziwisz offered the first Mass in the shrine-church of then-Blessed John Paul II. It was curious, as the church was not finished and was more of a shell, with minimal decoration. Regular Masses would not follow for some time. Yet Cardinal Dziwisz desired the first Mass for that day, the 50th anniversary of his own priestly ordination, which he received from Cardinal Wojtyla. Cardinal Dziwisz wanted the first Mass to unite the great saint and his loyal secretary.

By tradition, the archbishops of Kraków are buried under the high altar of Wawel Cathedral, upon which are kept the relics of St. Stanisław. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, the archbishop between Wojtyla and Dziwisz, was buried there this past August.

When the time comes, it would follow that Cardinal Dziwisz will likewise be buried in the archbishop’s crypt. Yet there is also an area at the John Paul Shrine that already includes the tombs of two cardinals close to John Paul. It might be that, in death, Cardinal Dziwisz chooses to be buried there, in the shrine of the man he served so faithfully in life.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.